While both candidates characterize the 2004 election as a historic struggle between two clear and unique visions, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry are often advocating similar solutions to some of the nation's biggest problems, sometimes using similar language.
In speeches and ads, Bush and Kerry hammer each other relentlessly, leaving many voters with the impression that they agree on nothing. But stripping away the rhetoric often reveals a convergence of views on major issues.
Bush wants to preserve tax breaks for the middle class, slash the deficit in half by 2009 and limit government spending. So does Kerry. The Massachusetts Democrat supports a continued American leadership role in securing Iraq, enhanced authority for the United Nations and sending in more U.S. troops to complete the job if needed. So does Bush.
Bush endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and, in a controversial step to Arabs, said it should be expected that Israel could keep some settlement blocks in the West Bank as part of a final peace deal. So did Kerry. Both tout greater spending to fight terrorism.
Kerry sells himself as a pro-business, "free but fair" global trader and fan of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's monetary policies. As does the president. Bush wants to spread broadband Internet service to rural communities, assist small businesses with tax relief and impose greater accountability on schools. Kerry feels the same.
To be sure, Kerry and Bush offer voters different agendas, styles and maps for winning the war on terrorism and managing the economy. On cultural issues, in particular, the two are far apart: Bush is opposed to abortion rights and appoints federal judges who share his view; Kerry supports abortion rights and would appoint only those judges who share his view. Bush favors a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; Kerry opposes it.
The most obvious domestic policy difference centers on health care. Kerry would take the proceeds from rolling back the tax cuts for wealthier Americans and fund a program to provide health coverage to 27 million people at an estimated cost of $653 billion over 10 years. Bush is pushing a more modest, $90 billion plan to cover 2.5 million uninsured.
Still, in the early days of the campaign, the two are frequently eschewing these black-and-white issues to tout what often amount to shades of gray on the economy, education, taxes and war.
In some respects, this reflects the confluence of Kerry's early focus on centrist economic policies such as balancing the budget and Bush's push to expand his support beyond the GOP's conservative base by reaching toward the middle. It also reflects a political imperative: The 19 battleground states, generally speaking, are more conservative than Kerry's Massachusetts and more liberal than Bush's Texas, so both candidates are tailoring their messages to the middle America audiences they calculate will select the next president Nov. 2.
In states such as Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, voters tend to favor a more centrist approach to policies, according to pollsters from both parties. "The battleground states are not extreme by definition, [and] by definition are more centrist than even the average American mix," said Frank Newport of the Gallup polling organization. "That's what the battle is being fought over."
More broadly, many Republicans and Democrats in recent years have gradually coalesced, in broad terms, around a similar set of ideas: tax cuts instead of tax increases; global trade instead of protectionism; greater accountability in public school classrooms; internationalism instead of isolationism; and deficit reduction, at least as a spoken goal.
Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist and Kerry supporter, said this makes the issue of credibility paramount. "Bush says he has the same policy solutions, but his record does not equal what he says," she said. Therefore, "the issue of credibility becomes the issue, not the policy."
Both campaigns are making credibility a focus of what has been a highly personal contest. Bush, and his surrogates, portray Kerry as indecisive and too quick to switch positions to trust. Kerry, and his surrogates, paint Bush as a president who misled the country on the road to war and purposely distorts the cost and efficacy of his policies. Often, the attacks sound the same.
Three weeks after Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel said Kerry's "rhetoric and his record often are canyons apart," Kerry said the Bush administration has a "a Grand Canyon credibility gap."
This is different from the race many Democrats were calling for last year, when former Vermont governor Howard Dean shot to the top of the polls by decrying party officials who advocated watered-down GOP policies. Dean called this "Bush lite." Dean, like many Democrats here, opposed the war. Kerry voted for it, but later opposed $87 billion to help fund it. Dean wanted to repeal all of the Bush tax cut, drawing a sharp contrast with the president. Kerry would repeal only part.
Michael Donilon, a top Kerry adviser, says the issues differences "are very significant. Voters believe they have a clear sense that if Bush is reelected, his economic policies will continue to favor the wealthy. If Kerry is elected, his policies would advantage middle-class people." Donilon also cited energy independence and health care.
Ken Mehlman, the Bush reelection campaign manager, said, "You have a fundamentally different world view." The president believes "government should not be stifling entrepreneurs and innovation . . . versus Kerry, who has consistently voted for higher taxes, more spending and more regulation."
In some instances, such as Iraq, Bush has moved toward Kerry's position, especially with his call for a bigger role for the United Nations and NATO, which the senator has advocated for nearly two years. Both candidates have said retreat is not an option, nor is ceding too much power to international groups.
"I am for united action, but I will never turn over America's national security decisions to leaders of other foreign countries," Bush said at a campaign stop Maumee, Ohio, on Tuesday. On the hustings, Kerry frequently echoes this promise, saying, "I will never hand over the security of this country to any institution."
Sometimes the two are moving toward each other.
On education, Bush has moved in recent months to modify the No Child Left Behind education law to address complaints by administrators, teachers, parents and Kerry that new accountability and testing requirements were too inflexible. The administration has eased rules governing testing requirements for severely disabled children and students with limited English-speaking skills.
Last week, Kerry, who voted for the education act, unveiled his plan for greater accountability, the same theme on which Bush campaigned in 2000 and is touting today. Kerry is a longtime supporter of the accountability movement. As a result, the pre-college education fight in this campaign often boils down to a debate over money -- Kerry, for instance, would spend more than Bush on No Child Left Behind -- and variations of the accountability theme.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found a plurality of respondents, 45 percent, said there are "real and important differences" between Bush and Kerry on education.
On Israel, both candidates are pushing hard to show their unequivocal support for the Jewish state, in part, because the Jewish community is a force in the U.S. elections. While Kerry promises the United States would be more engaged in the Middle East peace process under him than it has been under Bush, there is scant difference between the two on the central issue of U.S. support for Israel.
"The United States is strongly committed and I am strongly committed to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state," Bush said at a news conference April 14.
Kerry said Monday: "The people of Israel should also know that, as president, my commitment to a safe and secure Jewish state will be unwavering."
Kerry is sometimes adopting positions, particularly on economic matters, that mirror Bush's. Consider taxes. Bush and Vice President Cheney frequently warn that Kerry will raise taxes on all Americans. But Kerry will not, at least if he sticks to his campaign pledge. Kerry is supporting Bush's tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans, or everyone making less than $200,000 a year.
Whoever wins, a huge majority of Americans will benefit from the same lower marginal rates, a reduction in capital gains and dividend taxes and a bigger tax credit for children. The only Americans who would notice a significant change in their tax bill, and it would be a big one, are the 2.6 million households whose incomes top $200,000 annually, according to the 2002 census.
A tax-cut bidding war could emerge. Kerry recently said he would provide three times as much tax relief for the middle class by enacting new breaks to cover education and health care costs, a position usually associated with Republicans.
Both candidates vow to cut the budget deficit in half by 2009, a common pledge for modern candidates, and one that often proves hard to deliver. Bush, for instance, promised in 2000 to rein in government spending, only to sign into law record-sized budget plans that created record deficits, when measured in real dollars.
"This will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending and be wise with the people's money. By doing so, we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years," Bush said in his State of the Union speech in January.
Kerry, in an economic speech on April 7, said, "I will move America in a new direction, by cutting the deficit in half in four years," as part of his larger budget plan. "It will require tough decisions, not just for one budget, not just for one campaign, but tough decisions for years to come and often in the face of unforeseen circumstances."