ISSUES vs. CHARACTER….Over at the Prospect, Michael Tomasky suggests that Democrats fight campaigns on issues while Republicans fight them on character. Republican positions on most issues are basically unpopular, so their only hope of winning is a relentless assault on the character of their Democratic opponent. As Tomasky puts it:

The problem begins with the fact that majorities of the public tend to agree with Democrats on the issues. This isn’t universally true, of course, but it’s true with regard to more issues (perhaps many more issues) than not. On health care, the environment, investment, education, just about everything except national defense, majorities lean toward the Democratic position.

Hmmm. “Everything except national defense.” Does that suggest something?

It should. Yes, Bill Clinton was unusually articulate and charismatic, but he also ran in a pair of elections in which national defense wasn’t an issue. During the 80s, when the Cold War was uppermost in people’s minds, Republican candidates won three elections in a row. And in 2000, George Bush won a squeaker only by convincing people he was a compassionate centrist who was practically a Democrat himself.

Now, I happen to agree with Tomasky that Republicans generally go for the jugular more effectively than Democrats, but it’s a big mistake for us liberals to kid ourselves into thinking that Republicans win elections solely because they fool people into voting for them. It’s not just that this is a debilitating mental attitude ? although it is ? but it’s also not true. Our main problem isn’t that this year’s campaign has ignored the issues, our main problem is that the #1 issue in this campaign is national defense, and on that issue ? like it or not ? the majority of Americans favor the Republican position. If John Kerry wants to win, he should focus on the issues, but he has to focus on the issues that matter most in this campaign cycle.

It’s all about 9/11, Iraq, terrorism, and national security, baby. This election is going to be won on that issue, and Kerry needs to convince the country that he can handle it better than Bush. And really, considering the botch Bush has made of national security, that shouldn’t be all that hard.

Bottom line: Republicans aren’t avoiding the issues. It’s just that their signature issue happens to be the one people care most about this year. Democrats had better figure that out pronto.

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