The Bush people have made the case that their rival is a simpering leftist, lacking in character and resolve, a skimmer and a schemer and, what's worse, a conscientious objector in the war on terrorism. The Kerry team has argued that the president is a trigger-happy cowboy whose economic policies are more disastrous than Herbert Hoover's, whose mendacity is worse than Richard Nixon's and whose judgment is worse than, well, Caligula's.
Pretty strong arguments. But the election is a clock's tick away, and the campaign is a virtual tie. The more powerful the arguments against each candidate, the closer the contest gets. The mystery in both camps is why their arguments haven't put away the other man.
In an election season that's full of negative commercials, the candidates haven't come to grips with the negative aspects of their own campaigns -- negative aspects, it turns out, that are unusually revealing of the character of the contenders and the nature of political life in America in 2004. Here are two cases of campaign malpractice, one lodged against each camp:
Why Bush hasn't closed the deal. His critics say the president is removed from the details of governing, yet it is not the distance from his policies that hurts Bush but his closeness to them.
He's inextricably identified with all the problems of his administration, which at a time of economic distress and war is a risky position to be in.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower, toward the end of his life, read the memoirs of the New York Times journalist Arthur Krock, he underlined one sentence: an assessment of Lyndon B. Johnson that said a great deal about LBJ's unsuccessful presidential management style. That Eisenhower highlighted the passage says even more about his successful management style. And Krock's analysis offers us insight into why George W. Bush is in the uncomfortable position of being a war president struggling for political support:
"Partly because of his incessant ubiquity, Johnson, as much as any president in our history, has closely identified himself and his office with the disasters, foreign and domestic, economic and social, into which the United States has become more and more deeply involved in his time."
Eisenhower knew how to do what two other Texans, Johnson and Bush, were unable to do: deflect damage and stay above the daily fray.
Many analysts contend that the constant stream of bad news from Iraq is the single most formidable political obstacle Bush faces between now and the end of the campaign. Perhaps they're right. But there's reason to believe that the biggest challenge the president faces is in the investment portfolios of the millions of Americans -- more than half, according to the Federal Reserve Bank -- who are in some way involved in the markets.
In the third quarter that ended just two weeks ago, the value of general stocks in the United States fell by 2.18 percent. That news is reflected in the quarterly 401(k) reports that, like postal bombs, have been coursing through the mail in the past few days. If Americans feel poorer on Election Day than they did on Independence Day, the president is in severe trouble.
Why Kerry hasn't closed the deal. Most campaigns fail because of missed opportunities -- Hubert Humphrey's failure to separate himself from President Johnson and his inability to distinguish himself from Richard M. Nixon on Vietnam in 1968, for example, or Michael S. Dukakis' failure to respond swiftly and forcefully to the attacks launched by President Bush's father in 1988.
But the problem with Kerry's campaign isn't his failure to seize opportunities presented by Bush but his uncanny ability to create new political opportunities for the president.
Many of these new opportunities are gratuitous, almost careless. He gave an interview to The New York Times Magazine saying he wanted to relegate terrorism to the nuisance position it held in American life before Sept. 11, 2001, a remark that he should have understood would have been ripe for distortion and exploitation. He told Outdoor Life magazine that his favorite recreational weapon was a Chinese assault rifle, which is the sort of remark that would have been laughable tumbling out of the mouth of Gen. Curtis E. LeMay and is ludicrous on the lips of Kerry, who among other things should have suspected that he ought to have had a permit for such a weapon.
One of the principal stumbles is an error of omission, his failure to provide a thoughtful, reflective examination of his own spiritual values that goes beyond his brief remarks on this theme in Wednesday's debate in Arizona. This might not have been necessary in 1964 or 1968, but it is absolutely indispensable today, when religious issues are at the forefront of American domestic politics, when the incumbent speaks of faith-based initiatives, and when the nation is in its second decade of a spiritual revival, or at least a revival of spirituality.
This is a special obligation of a Catholic candidate lagging behind a Republican president in polls of Catholic voters. It provides, moreover, a chance to show how his views are rooted in Catholic social teaching and Catholic notions of justice. Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, says Kerry must demonstrate how his "spiritual, moral values," applied to the war in Iraq and his domestic priorities, were shaped by his faith, which he has taken seriously since he was a boy and which sustained him during periods of trial, including combat in Vietnam.
Kerry's campaign task is unfinished because, after three debates, millions of dollars' worth of advertisements and hundreds of takeoffs and landings from coast to coast, John F. Kerry is still a work in progress, at least in the eyes of the electorate. It's hard to finish off your opponent when you're not finished yourself.
-- David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.