In the past several weeks, there has been a remarkable shift in President Bush's strategy for reelection. Bush once wanted to highlight his differences with John Kerry over Iraq and national security. Now the president is trying to blur them.
The change reflects the Bush campaign's response to a widespread loss of public confidence in the administration's handling of Iraq. What Bush's lieutenants had once hoped would be a large plus in this year's campaign is turning into a negative that Bush is trying to minimize.
From the days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, until very recently, Bush and his surrogates emphasized how much tougher Bush was than his opponents. Unlike the Democrats, Bush was willing to "go it alone" to battle terror. He was not prepared to wait for support from the United Nations and recalcitrant allies -- "to wait," as Bush himself once put it, "for somebody else to act."
Bush has now reversed both the public emphasis of his policy and the rhetoric of his campaign. A new phrase has entered the lexicon of Bush surrogates: Where Kerry was once denounced primarily as a wildly liberal senator from Massachusetts and a flip-flopper to boot, he is now accused of "me-tooism" on Iraq.
The Bush campaign Web site, for example, touts a statement made earlier this month by Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), who accused Kerry of "political 'me-tooism' " and insisted that Kerry has "largely embraced the goals that the president has already laid to make the world a safer place."
Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and a White House loyalist, also accused Kerry of "a striking amount of me-tooism" on foreign policy, while Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman has said that Kerry's "only real strategy on Iraq is: 'I wish I was doing it.' "
The Kerry camp makes the opposite point: that in seeking and winning a United Nations resolution supporting the new Iraqi government and in trying unsuccessfully at last week's Group of Eight summit to win a NATO troop commitment to Iraq, Bush is himself flip-flopping and following Kerry's lead.
But Kerry's advisers also know the danger the new Bush gambit poses to their candidate. Bush's drop in the polls and Kerry's rise were fueled in large part by mounting violence in Iraq earlier this year, a strong public reaction against the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and a belief that the administration had planned poorly for the occupation on the basis of dangerously optimistic assumptions. The Bush campaign's argument now amounts to a claim that Kerry would do no better.
Kerry himself has vigorously rejected the idea that his policies are similar to Bush's, and the senator's aides argue that the public sees a significant difference between Bush and Kerry on Iraq. "There's a sense that Bush moved the nation too quickly to war on the basis of information that was false," said Tad Devine, one of Kerry's top political advisers. Bush may be presenting himself as advocating policies that "sound the same" as Kerry's, Devine said, but voters are skeptical that "Bush can suddenly become the guy who works well with other people" and can enlist allies in Iraq, given the president's past go-it-alone rhetoric.
As doubts about the war grow, the Bush campaign's "me-too" claims could serve additional purposes. They could increase pressure on Kerry to support a fixed date for a U.S. withdrawal. This might open Kerry to a new line of attack and alienate some moderate voters. Or the "me-too" charge could encourage the war's staunchest opponents to support Ralph Nader's third-party candidacy.
But Kerry's aides and advisers see no likelihood that he will change his current course, and they doubt that antiwar voters will buy Bush campaign claims that there is no difference between the two major-party candidates.
A former top Clinton administration official argues that unless the situation improves dramatically in Iraq, Kerry's stand will leave him with ample grounds on which to criticize Bush for "mistake after mistake."
"Kerry can argue that we are not safer because of the mistakes the administration has made," said this official. "He can say that we cannot afford things we need at home because of the high cost of the administration's strategy. And he can make a strong case that there is no prospect that things are going to change unless we change presidents."
Blocking that argument is precisely why Republicans have become so fond lately of that moldy old political phrase "me, too." It's not a slogan Bush ever expected to use.