THE BUSH CAMPAIGN has a problem. Almost any unflattering issue they bring up about John Kerry tends to reflect worse on President Bush. One thinks of the old proverb, "Never mention a rope in the house of a man who was hanged."
On Monday, speaking at a fund-raiser in Houston, the president tried out what will doubtless be a Republican mantra: "Senator Kerry voted for the Patriot Act, for NAFTA, for No Child Left Behind, and for the use of force in Iraq. Now he opposes the Patriot Act, NAFTA, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the liberation of Iraq. My opponent clearly has strong convictions -- they just don't last very long."
There are two very persuasive rejoinders. For starters, most senators and congressmen also voted for No Child Left Behind and for force in Iraq, but quickly turned into critics because Bush pulled a bait-and-switch.
Similarly, most legislators were stampeded into supporting the so-called Patriot Act, which increases permissible spying on Americans, and now have regrets. Today, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Sensenbrenner, says the Patriot Act will be extended "over my dead body." So Kerry is in very good company.
The second rejoinder is even more potent: Compared with whom? If Kerry occasionally modifies his positions as events change, his inconstancy is pretty mild compared with Bush's. This, after all, is a president who ran as a "uniter, not a divider," as a "compassionate conservative," and as a steward of budgetary prudence. The rest is history, and the history does not flatter the president.
Indeed, this is not an incumbent who should welcome close comparisons. Want to talk about Kerry's military record? Oops. Want to discuss No Child Left Behind, where Bush's failure to provide funding combined with impossible bureaucratic requirements has stoked a rebellion of Republican governors? Maybe you don't.
Want to make fun of Kerry as a preppy rich kid? A group of Bush supporters created an ad ridiculing Kerry's wealth, taunting him as an improbable advocate for the poor. But again, compared to whom?
In America, some rich kids grow up to be adults who genuinely care about the poor -- the names Roosevelt and Kennedy come to mind -- and others couldn't care less. As Kevin Phillips's best-selling book, "American Dynasty," recounts, Bush father and son both fall into the latter category.
Bush junior, by his own account, was a dissolute who didn't get serious about his life until he was 40, when he got religion and sobered up. His family connections then allowed him to fall upward. When Kerry, at age 25, was testifying before the Senate, Bush was partying. So maybe family affluence isn't such a great topic either.
Bush's kickoff commercial wrapped the president in the memory of 9/11. But this association is starting to feel like cheap grace. The families of many of the victims resent it, and it flies in the face of earlier Bush pledges not to play politics with terrorism. Instead of evoking Bush's leadership, the commercial reminds us of Bush's cynicism. After the messy outcome in Iraq and the bungling of nuclear nonproliferation policy, terrorism no longer automatically plays to Bush's advantage.
Locating the GOP convention in New York (out of similar motives) could turn out to be an epic political blunder. Bush shouldn't expect a hero's welcome from New York's first responders, the real heroes of 9/11. Bush walked away from financial commitments to New York; the firefighters union is very pro-Kerry; and Bush is resented by New York's cops and EMT's for his opposition to urban aid and public-sector unions.
Also, Gotham's top three Republicans -- New York Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former Mayor Rudy Guiliani -- all favor gay rights.
Gay marriage, supposedly the ultimate wedge issue marginalizing Democrats like Kerry, could well play out against Bush. As civil union (Kerry's position) is fast becoming the national consensus, Bush finds himself marooned with the hard-core bigoted right and alienating moderate swing voters.
So if a real comparison of records and personal achievements doesn't work so well, what do you do? You get really dirty, you have surrogates do the dirty work (remember Kerry's nonexistent affair?), and you hope that the mud so obscures the issues that by November the challenger's advantage on the substance is buried.
This election is about profound differences -- what kind of a country we are becoming, and how to make the world tolerably safe. Let's hope the voters are paying attention.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.