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E.J. Dionne Jr.

The Intensity Gap

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page A25

In the torrent of polling information released over the weekend, the most significant finding was this one: John Kerry's supporters are more likely than George W. Bush's to believe that this year's election is the most important of their lifetimes.

According to Newsweek's poll, 37 percent of Kerry's voters felt this way, compared with only 27 percent of Bush's. Of the rest, 40 percent of Kerry supporters thought 2004 was more important than most other elections, while 35 percent of Bush's backers did.

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As a political matter, this intensity gap suggests that even if Bush has been successful in mobilizing the Republican Party's political base, he has been even more successful in mobilizing Democrats.

The Bush camp followers are not happy with this state of affairs. They tried to dismiss the strong feelings against Bush as irrational. The phrase "Bush hatred" is invoked to imply a legion of citizens gone mad.

It's an odd argument when it comes from right-wing talk radio and cable television ranters who insisted in the 1990s that hatred of Bill Clinton was the highest form of patriotism. But their reaction is at least predictable. Anyone else who buys into the notion that the passions Bush has unleashed are primarily the product of unreasoning prejudices misses the central dynamic of this year's election.

The fervent opposition to President Bush is rational, and its intensity is a direct response to Bush's own efforts to discredit all opposition to his policies. Criticism of Bush comes not simply from the far left or from fans of Michael Moore movies, but also from political moderates, including Republicans, who see Bush's fiscal, social and foreign policies as decidedly immoderate. The passion comes from a conviction that the president would prefer to use the fear of terrorism and cast his opponent as a dangerous appeaser rather than risk the loss of power.

One antidote to the claim that Bush's opponents are nuts is the collection of endorsements of Kerry in the New Yorker, the New Republic and the Nation. The three magazines sit at quite different points along the center-left, yet their editorials are all serious, rational and sustained explorations of the dangers entailed in reelecting the president. You cannot come away from any of these without understanding why so many of Kerry's supporters consider this election so crucial.

These magazines speak for themselves. But it's worth considering why so many moderates in particular are alarmed at the prospect of a second Bush term.

They are, of course, affected by many specific issues. There is the fiscal mess created by Bush's oversized tax cuts and the president's insistence that we push on with the same approach. There is the prospect of a Supreme Court dominated not even by moderate conservatives but by a judicial approach rooted in right-leaning judicial activism. Add in Bush's permissive approach to environmental regulation, his anti-union approach to labor regulation, his dismissal of even the mildest civil libertarian criticisms of the Patriot Act. Most important, there is the question of the administration's incompetence in Iraq. Even among the war's supporters, many now doubt the president's capacity to deliver a successful outcome.

For those who favor moderation in governing, two questions predominate. The first is the president's conscious choice to divide a country that had been so united after the attacks of Sept. 11. He signaled the course for the rest of his term when, in a September 2002 speech aimed at electing Republicans to Congress, he said that the U.S. Senate -- meaning its then-Democratic majority -- was "not interested in the security of the American people." If you say your opponents don't care about the nation's security, aren't you accusing them of being traitors?

And this administration is desperately trying to have this campaign be about anything but the central purpose of democratic elections: to hold those in power accountable for what they have done. Bush does not want the election to be about his miscalculations in Iraq, his misleading statements before the war, his false predictions about the fiscal effect of his tax cuts. He wants to scare the country about terrorism and John Kerry. It is not an honorable approach to reelection. That is why moderate and independent voters are finding it so hard to support the president and why so many of Kerry sympathizers are so fervent in their commitment.

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