The Washington Times

Last week, John Kerry figured out that he would like to be president of the United States in 2005. At long last, we have two candidates who are competing for that office. And a pretty close race it is.

For every partisan folly in American politics, there is an equal and opposite partisan folly. Let’s review the sequence of folly for 2004.

For the months of the Democratic primaries, Democrats had largely persuaded themselves that the Bush administration had been discredited, mainly by events in Iraq. They watched Mr. Bush’s approval ratings decline, and they thought this represented the verdict of the American people that his administration was a failure and therefore due to be replaced by any suitably “electable” Democrat come November. They found additional evidence for this in the early head-to-head matchups giving the emerging Mr. Kerry a lead over Mr. Bush.

The folly here is really quite simple: Democrats neglected to take into consideration the fact that Mr. Bush had yet to begin his campaign for re-election. A speech here, a media appearance there, but in point of fact, Mr. Bush was essentially biding his time until it became clear that Mr. Kerry was going to be the nominee. At which time, Mr. Bush launched his first salvo, which sought to establish an image of Mr. Kerry as a flip-flopper.

This was reasonably effective. The Kerry campaign, still working (I think) on the theory of the auto-discreditation of Mr. Bush, did nothing to counter the impression with a firm and consistent message from Mr. Kerry, instead using the Democratic convention to “introduce” Mr. Kerry on the strength of his Vietnam service. But Vietnam was not the issue; voters already had an impression of Mr. Kerry, thanks to the Bush campaign, and it was not especially favorable.

Mr. Kerry wasted August on Vietnam, still failing to articulate a compelling and consistent case for why Americans should elect him president. The Bush convention refocused national attention on security issues, painting Mr. Bush as a consistent leader, and emerged with a lead in the polls after Labor Day that was sustained as Mr. Kerry still seemed stuck in neutral. Democrats began to panic.

And so, of course, it was time for the equal and opposite Republican folly: Mr. Kerry, in this view, had blown the election. Unable to take a consistent position and mired in the vanity of his war record, Mr. Kerry had nothing to say on the issues of greatest importance to Americans, and anything he did say from here on would fail to be persuasive because it would inevitably conflict with things he had said previously. Mr. Bush had prevailed. His was the clear and consistent leadership on the issues most important to Americans. The remaining weeks until the election were largely a formality, and the coming debate on foreign policy was to be welcomed as an opportunity for Mr. Kerry to bury himself under a landslide.

Well, no, not that either. At the debate, Mr. Kerry, for the first time, managed to look indisputably presidential. He performed well. The rigid time limits forced him to focus his answers. And there was nothing self-disqualifying in what he said or how he said it. Suddenly, there emerged a sense of irrelevance to his previous positions on Iraq as he focused on the performance of the Bush administration. And though he was no less vague on what he would do differently, neither was his position necessarily more vague than Mr. Bush’s unspecific determination to stay the course.

So it was time for Republicans to suffer the pain of panic in the wake of folly. The near-hysteria on the GOP side was the same as the sentiment among Democrats two weeks ago. And at the center of it was the candidate, Mr. Bush. Here, the party faithful watched in despair, not because they felt their candidate wasn’t performing as well as he could, but precisely because of their fear that he was indeed performing as well as he could. And it was not good enough.

So it was Democrats’ turn to be exuberant. If they are smart, they will avoid succumbing to the triumphalist view that this election has now been settled in their favor once and for all. Or at least, I don’t think that’s a plausible reading of what has happened. Republicans, meanwhile, will probably perk up a bit once they discover that the floor is not collapsing beneath them.

So, here’s a summary of Election Year 2004. January to July: Democrats think they have already won – mistaking the Bush campaign’s quiescence for an inability to say anything, the Bush administration having been a miserable failure. August through September: Republicans think they have won, mistaking a now fumbling and confused Kerry campaign for a permanent debility that prevents Mr. Kerry from mounting a campaign at all. October-November: Each side understands it has a serious opponent.

But here I am speculating. And as long as I am, let the fortune-telling proceed: The winner will be from the side that best understands it has a serious opponent.