Washington — When Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for the Bush campaign, was asked in a conference call with reporters last week why the president had gained strength in two of the latest national surveys despite the worst month of bloodshed in Iraq, the headlined investigation of pre-9-11 intelligence failures and Bush's rocky prime-time televised news conference, he had a ready answer.
First, he said, most of the public was well-conditioned by Bush's own statements to expect a long and difficult struggle in Iraq. And in hard times, Bush's demonstrated leadership qualities dwarf those of his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, in the eyes of most Americans. Dowd speaks as a partisan, but there's evidence to support his conclusions in the mid-April Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The poll found a roughly 10-point swing from Kerry to Bush during the seeming time of trouble for the president. In trial heats, Bush went from trailing the Massachusetts senator by 5 points to leading by the same margin.
Some public opinion experts, including Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center, think this is a rallying-around effect. When the country is in trouble, especially when young men and women are at risk, the inclination is to support the commander in chief. But the shift appears to be tied directly to a decline in regard for Kerry. Between March and April, the Post poll showed a 9-point drop in the percentage describing Kerry as a strong leader and a 10-point drop in the share saying he is honest and trustworthy. (Bush's numbers moved not at all.)
March was the month that Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination, so his scores may have been unnaturally high at that moment. But that does not explain the biggest gap between the rivals. When voters were asked to rate Bush and Kerry on their willingness to take a position and stick with it, eight out of 10 said Bush does that, while only four out of 10 saw that consistency or tenacity in Kerry.
Some Democrats blame this on the millions the Bush campaign has spent in recent weeks on ads depicting Kerry as a flip-flopper. But in the Post-ABC poll, Kerry actually fared much better against Bush in the states where those ads have run than in the rest of the country.
I suspect something deeper is at work. If you watched Kerry on "Meet the Press," you saw many examples of dodginess on his part. At the very start, moderator Tim Russert asked for a "yes or no answer" to the question, "Do you believe the war in Iraq was a mistake?" Kerry's response was: "I think the way the president went to war was a mistake." By restating the question, he left the fundamental issue unanswered.
Over the course of the hour, Kerry struggled to explain why he had once (decades ago) advocated placing U.S. forces under the direction of the United Nations, why he had said in 2000 that America's effort to isolate Cuba was a "frozen, stalemated, unproductive policy," why he had voted in 2002 for the resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein and why he now criticizes that policy after promising he would not do so "once the shooting starts."
This is not a new problem for Kerry. As Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish, Brian Mooney and Nina Easton write in their newly published biography of the senator, despite instances where Kerry showed himself "a lawmaker willing to stand up to prevailing political winds ... he is trailed by a reputation for political opportunism. ... Unlike many who are driven to succeed in public life by a core belief system, the arc of Kerry's political career is defined by a restless search for the issues, individuals and causes to fulfill a nearly lifelong ambition" for the White House.
The election is still six months away. But Kerry's reputation has been built over 40 years. And the voters seem to be sniffing it out.¢
My beloved old friend and colleague, Mary McGrory, lost her fight with illness and age last week. What I wrote about her in a January column stands. She was "the most elegant newspaper writer Americans have read over the past half-century," and for all of that time one of the hardest-working reporters. She was also a boon companion, always of good cheer and ready for a laugh or a song, whether on the road or at her Macomb Street parties. Among the many gifts she gave me was the pleasure of delivering to her the praise and gratitude so many hundreds of you lavished on her after I wrote in January about the loss all of us felt when she was silenced by a stroke last year. Your messages brightened her final days.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.