Friday, September 10, 2004
New York Times > Editorial > POLITICAL MEMO When an Explosive Charge Is Not Handled With Care
September 9, 2004 By ADAM NAGOURNEY
ASHINGTON, Sept. 8 - Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that the nation was more likely to "get hit again" by terrorists if John Kerry was elected was one of the toughest attacks launched in a presidential election in 40 years.
But Mr. Cheney's latest assault on Mr. Kerry, which startled Democrats and Republicans alike, raised a central question even in this notably ferocious presidential campaign: Is it possible for a candidate to go too far, and alienate the very voters he is trying to court?
In one sign that the answer to that question may be yes, Mr. Cheney's aides were quick to say that he had not meant to be quite so direct in his remarks in Des Moines on Tuesday when he said: "The danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating." A review of the videotape of his appearance in Des Moines suggests that his remark was spontaneous and unscripted. There was some, though not much, cringing in Republican circles at the image of Mr. Cheney on television, characteristically unsmiling, describing a Kerry presidency in such apocalyptic terms.
But what Mr. Cheney said was, if a bit stark, in line with the not-so-subliminal message of Mr. Bush's nominating convention, and what Mr. Cheney has said more delicately before: that the nation would be safer from a terrorist attack if it returned Mr. Bush to office. If Mr. Cheney's aides were walking back his remark in the hours after he made it, they were only walking so far.
"It's a central argument of this election: the policies of Bush-Cheney will keep us safer," said Nicolle Devenish, the communications director for Mr. Bush's re-election campaign. "Take away the fascination with the way he said what he said. It's a discussion about pre-emption."
As they did in New York, when they staged a convention that featured the symbols and sadness of the terrorist attacks there, the Republicans seem to be walking a tricky line in this campaign, which the White House has always wanted fought on the issue of terrorism.
In New York, the Republicans sought to identify Mr. Bush's re-election with the tragedy that has defined his presidency, without appearing to exploit a day on which almost 3,000 Americans died. In this case, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush have sought to make the case that the nation would be far safer if Mr. Bush was returned to the White House.
Still, Mr. Cheney's harsh presentation of that argument in Des Moines may well have crossed that line, analysts said, and created potential perils for the White House.
"It's a risky strategy," said Stephen D. Ansolabehere, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If they feel they have to bring some independent voters into their camp, this is a fine line to walk."
Indeed, polls suggest that independent voters, whom both parties are courting assiduously, are put off by what they might see as crass or exceedingly negative political campaigning. What is more, Republicans have worried that Mr. Cheney's campaign visage is already a little too stern, and that the image of him issuing an alarming warning about a Kerry presidency would hardly help.
And, of course, the attacks of Sept. 11 did occur when Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney were inoffice, and thus Mr. Cheney's remarks would seem to have presented an opening to Democrats who might want to remind voters of the criticism from two commissions of the White House's actions before the attacks.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said one factor ascribed to Jimmy Carter's loss in 1980 was his remark that that Ronald Reagan's election could mean that "Americans might be separated, blacks from whites, Jews from Christians, North from South, rural from urban.''
Ms. Devenish said Mr. Cheney was trying in his remarks to draw what she said was a significant difference between the two candidates, asserting that Mr. Kerry did not embrace Mr. Bush's position of acting pre-emptively against nations that he sees as a threat. "We have a very, very, very different philosophy on dealing with the threat of a global terrorist market."
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker, hailed what he said was Mr. Cheney's directness, saying, "Dick Cheney has understated the difference in danger to the United States between a Bush and a Kerry presidency."
But not incidentally, Mr. Cheney's remarks were close in tone to many of the attacks that were aimed at Mr. Kerry at the Republican convention - notably, in a speech Senator Zell Miller, a Democrat from Georgia.
The remarks were among the more dire offered in a presidential campaign since 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson broadcast a television advertisement, with a mushroom cloud, warning that the election of Barry Goldwater would lead to nuclear war. It was hard to find anyone in Mr. Kerry's headquarters who thought that Mr. Cheney's remark was not deliberate.
"A sitting vice president does not make a comment like that without knowing the implications of it," said Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Kerry's communications director.
There was no shortage of speculation among Democrats about why Mr. Cheney was being so harsh. Could post-convention White House polls now be finding that the 11-point Bush lead reported by Time and Newsweek had indeed been exaggerated, leaving Mr. Bush without the upper hand he had hoped for? Could the White House be trying to shift attention away from new reports this week about Mr. Bush's absences in the National Guard?
Perhaps. But it seems safe to say that even if Mr. Cheney did not mean to say it the way he did, this was precisely the message he intended to convey. It is one that voters will be hearing again and again before Election Day.
Richard W. Stevenson contributed reporting for this article.