John Kerry and his newly militaristic Democrats are running to the right of George W. Bush on national security policy and enjoying some success in that unlikely enterprise. They are wresting political advantage from Bush by painting him as the candidate who is playing politics with security.
Surprisingly, Bush and Karl Rove are giving the Kerry camp room on the right. When Bush dropped three paragraphs of hyperbolic generalities about a global Pentagon redeployment plan into a campaign speech last week, Kerry and his surrogates quickly seized the moment and perhaps the momentum -- in part by mischaracterizing the Bush plan.
In this campaign it is the Democrats who demand larger standing armed forces, want more of them stationed abroad than Bush does and miss no occasion to hammer the president for not prosecuting the war on terrorism more vigorously.
This is all couched in the tactical subjunctive -- in promises to do better and more when in office. The Democrats submerge differences on Iraq by not challenging Kerry's vague, Nixon-like "plan" to end the real war there. The party's substantial antiwar wing will apparently do anything, including staying quiet for a few months, to see Bush defeated.
That makes sense at this point. Around 55 percent of the U.S. public wants a new president, says a senior Democrat who lives and breathes polling data. But 52 percent fear changing leaders in wartime. Kerry's task, this Democrat believes, is to win the confidence of enough voters in that second group to win the election.
Bush's continuing ambivalence on the nature of this "wartime" gives Kerry his maneuvering room on defense issues. The president employs the rhetoric of national danger and sacrifice -- without seeking wartime budgets and other measures of urgency to underpin his strategy.
Consider the global redeployment plan to move about 60,000 U.S. soldiers out of Europe and another 12,500 from South Korea over 10 years, which Bush briefly spotlighted at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Monday and which Kerry blasted at the same forum Wednesday.
This plan was grinding along in the bureaucracy before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It contains core ideas about withdrawing U.S. troops no longer needed to repel a Soviet invasion in Europe -- ideas that I first heard Bush lay out in a December 1999 interview. He made clear then that he expected his foreign policy agenda as president to be dominated by reshaping U.S. forces and alliances to reflect the end of the Cold War.
This long-horizon plan has little to do with the war on terrorism, Iraq or the renewed confrontation with North Korea -- and that is precisely the political problem for Bush. By choosing to highlight it but not connect it in the VFW speech, Bush thrust what is essentially a bureaucratic exercise into a political arena dominated by the search for answers on Iraq.
The Pentagon's most painful problem in real life is not Moqtada Sadr or Kim Jong Il. It is closing any military base in Congressman X's district. Abandoning bases abroad is, by comparison, a piece of cake. The closing of installations in Germany is a necessary political prelude to the consolidation and reduction of bases at home in what is a rational, budget-driven exercise.
Despite the Kerry campaign charges that the reductions will disrupt alliance management, the specific reductions come largely at the prompting of NATO members and the South Korean government, all eager to regain valuable real estate and freedom from environmentally destructive military maneuvers. The changes have been under discussion for nearly two years.
"This is one time we cannot say we have not been consulted," a German official told me last spring.
But in campaign season, why a thing is being said now and by whom become issues in themselves. Bush and Rove should have picked that up from the pointless controver- sy over Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's dramatic warnings that Washington, New York and New Jersey faced threats of new al Qaeda attacks -- and the revelations a day later that much of the surveillance was pre-Sept. 11. The warnings were justified, subsequent information suggests. Had they been nuanced and issued by a nonpolitical figure such as FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III -- and had the Pentagon redeployment plan been unveiled by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers -- controversy (and opportunity for Democratic chest-pounding) would have been lessened.
The all-too-real threats that loom for the American electorate in this campaign require unusually straight talk and responsible behavior from both candidates and their parties. All fell short last week.