IF ONE had to pinpoint the most important difference between George W. Bush's energized presidential campaign and John Kerry's stalled effort in the last few weeks, it would be this: Bush has been actively molding public opinion while Kerry has not.
On the stump, Bush is a skilled performer. He's relaxed, he's on message, and he connects well with his audience. Indeed, his skewering of John Kerry's position(s) on Iraq is delivered with the deft timing and sly mockery of a professional comedian.
But here's the president's not-so-secret weapon: He is dismayingly willing to say things that are either blatantly false or clearly designed to create a misleading impression.
The most recent example came when he claimed that Kerry's health care plan amounted to "a government takeover of health care with an enormous price tag," something that Kerry couldn't possibly pay for "unless he raises your taxes."
In fact, Kerry's carefully designed plan would operate through financial incentives and maintain the existing health care framework. And the Democratic nominee has stipulated that he would pay for it by rescinding tax breaks only for upper earners while retaining middle-class cuts.
But by far the most egregious example of Bush's "say anything" approach comes on Iraq. What Bush and the Republicans did at their New York City convention was to paint Iraq as an essential war in the battle against terror.
They also left the impression that Iraq was in some way linked with Sept. 11. Indeed, it's hard to read either Vice President Dick Cheney's address or Bush's own speech and conclude that they weren't shrewdly designed to suggest a tie between Saddam and Al Qaeda -- without ever quite asserting as much.
In both cases, the discussion of Iraq followed closely the mention of terrorism. "Free governments in the Middle East will fight terrorists instead of harboring them, and that helps us keep the peace," Bush said. "So our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is clear."
And, recounting the process that preceded the war with Iraq, Bush posed this rhetorical question: "Do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman or do I take action to defend our country? Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time." On the stump, of course, Cheney has been more explicit in the links he has drawn.
Still, what's truly preposterous is Bush's assertion before the convention that even knowing what we know today -- that is, that Iraq had neither stockpiles of WMDs nor collaborative ties with Al Qaeda -- he would still have invaded Iraq. That contention so strains credulity that Secretary of State Colin Powell wouldn't offer an out-and-out yes when he was asked essentially the same question on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
"Would it have been a different analysis that we went through and conclusion that we came to if we knew at that time" that Saddam had the "intention and capability but no active stockpiles?" Powell said. "I don't know."
Under the Republican barrage, however, public opinion polling showed that support for the war had actually bumped up several points.
That may be because Kerry hasn't joined the argument forcefully enough. Instead, he's taken refuge in what is essentially an argument about process: Despite knowing what we know now, he still would have voted to give Bush the authority to use force in Iraq because the president needed that leverage to hold Saddam accountable.
Kerry repeated that Wednesday on Don Imus's radio show along with his usual critique that it was a mistake for Bush "to go to war the way he did." But when radio's cranky contrarian asked if there were "any circumstances" under which we should have gone to war, Kerry went further than he usually does: "Not under the current circumstances, no, there are none that I see."
The Bush campaign instantly accused Kerry of muddling his stand on Iraq still further. But actually, that declaration was a needed step toward a tougher, more effective position.
There is no guarantee that Kerry will stick with an observation Imus had to elicit from him, of course. The candidate did not repeat that remark in yesterday's tough address to the National Guard Association.
But if that's what Kerry thinks, he should assert it, and forcefully. There's a clarity there that would help him sweep away the fog of the president's say-anything politics and offer a more cogent critique of the war.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is email@example.com.