Event Summary: Bush v. Kerry: The Long Battle Begins

March 29, 2004


With Election Day still more than seven months away, the 2004 presidential election is already taking shape and the campaign promises to be close, tense, and aggressively contested. Both candidates have begun massive ad campaigns and the political rhetoric has become sharp and pointed.


A Brookings panel of experts convened today to offer a progress report on the race and preview potential issues that could swing the political pendulum this November.

Panelists agreed that, despite recent setbacks for George W. Bush, the presidency remains his to lose, given the benefits of incumbency, Bush’s sizable campaign war chest, and his impressive marks on character, leadership, and national security.

However, several potential hurdles could trip up the president’s reelection efforts.

“The growing doubts about Iraq and the war on terrorism, and a less than enthusiastic reaction to the president’s domestic policies could backfire on the president,” Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas E. Mann said. In addition, Senator John Kerry’s relatively easy road to the Democratic nomination and the unity of his party puts him in a good position going into the general election.

Brookings Visiting Fellow Anthony Corrado said that, although Bush’s financial advantage is impressive (Bush is expected to outspend Kerry by $70 to $100 million), the gap is unlikely to cripple Kerry, thanks to Kerry’s own fundraising success and his decision to operate outside of federal spending limits.

“Kerry can’t match Bush dollar for dollar,” Corrado said, “but he can get his message out in a way that [Vice President] Gore never could [in 2000].” Corrado also added that Kerry’s campaign would be boosted by outside forces, including “527” organizations such as and Americans Coming Together that will actively campaign against Bush. He also noted the publication of numerous books critical of Bush, five of which appeared yesterday on the New York Times Best Sellers List.

“Richard Clarke’s book provided more penetration against the Bush campaign than anything Kerry did last week” Corrado said. There are reportedly 500,000 copies of the former White House counterterrorism coordinator’s book in circulation, but it came out so recently that it hasn’t yet made the Times bestseller list.

Panelists agreed that, like most elections, voters will ultimately base their decisions on how they think each candidate will approach foreign affairs and the economy.

Brookings Senior Fellow Ivo Daalder said that September 11th assured that foreign policy would figured prominently in Bush’s reelection campaign.

“He announced that he was a war president,” Daalder said. “It defined who he is, and in order to remind people that September 11th was important, foreign policy has to be a part of his campaign.” Daadler added that Bush is simply playing to his strengths, given recent polls suggesting that most Americans overwhelmingly favor Bush’s leadership on the war on terror and national security.

However, Daalder added that Bush could be damaged by Clarke’s assertion that Bush failed to adequately confront terrorism during his first eight months in office and continues to forge a dangerous foreign policy. Such claims contrast Bush’s strong reputation for decisive leadership, according to Daalder.

“He has no domestic agenda,” Daalder said, ” and if something happens to raise the alternative narrative, you may find that the president—who is only standing on one leg—has no leg left to stand on.”

Although poor economic performance under the Bush administration may prompt his campaign to focus on foreign policy, John Kerry won’t have a cakewalk on economic issues, according to Brookings Senior Fellow Peter Orszag.

“He has a trilemma,” Orszag said, noting that Kerry’s three goals of lowering the federal deficit, financing health care coverage, and repealing some of Bush’s tax cuts may bump against each other. “The harder you push on one of those, the harder time you have with the other two.”

Brookings Visiting Fellow Kathryn Dunn Tenpas said that “this president has learned the mistakes of his father” by constructing a strong campaign organization that is focused and determined to gain reelection.

“He has redefined the permanent campaign by utilizing campaign tactics to govern,” Tenpas said. “The line between governing and campaign has essentially eroded.” Bush’s legislative efforts on behalf of steel tariffs, faith-based initiatives, tax cuts, and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage all seek to reach out to specific constituencies, Tenpas added.

Whatever the result in November, panelists agreed that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“If Bush wins and retains Congress—which seems likely,” said Orszag, “the changes he will likely make will have consequences for decades to come.” Orszag said tax reform and Social Security will be major issues for the next administration. Corrado added that the next president would be in a position to drastically shape the federal judiciary.

“It’s clear that there is a fundamental difference between these two candidates and their vision for the world,” Mann concluded.