"I can wage a better war on terror than George Bush has." So speaks Senator Kerry in the U.S. presidential campaign's final days, again reminding voters that the key issue in this race remains as it was a year earlier - deciding which candidate will better protect Americans from terrorism.
As with so many topics, the basic difference between Kerry and President Bush is one of character, with the challenger repeatedly changing his mind and the president sticking with one position.
On occasion, Mr. Kerry adopts Bush-like terminology. For example, in September 2004 he talked about the war on terror being "as monumental a struggle as the Cold War." When in this mood, he predicts that its outcome "will determine whether we and our children live in freedom or in fear."
At other times, however, Mr. Kerry dismisses the war and its importance. In January 2004, after acknowledging that the war on terror is "occasionally military - and it will continue to be for a long time," he described it as "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation." He has reiterated this point about the conflict not really being a war several times since, and most memorably in an interview earlier this month.
"We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."
As is his wont, Mr. Kerry is inconstant. He one time pictures the war on terror as a world-historical event like the Cold War and another time it is small beer, comparable to prostitution and illegal gambling.
In contrast, Mr. Bush has since September 11 steadily argued for the profound import of what happened that day. He has since spoken of "a long-lasting ideological struggle" in which totalitarians use terror "as a tool to intimidate the free." He sees the enemy's goal as nothing less than a war to destroy America. Mr. Bush is nothing if not consistent - some accuse him of stubbornness - and he invariably assesses terrorism as the greatest challenge of our time.
As for Mr. Kerry's terrorism-as-nuisance idea, Mr. Bush impatiently says he "couldn't disagree more" with it and comments: "Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorists, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world." More broadly, he says, Mr. Kerry "fundamentally misunderstands the war on terror."
Others in Mr. Kerry's camp also disdain the war concept. Richard Holbrooke, touted as the Democrat's possible secretary of state, says that "We're not in a war on terror, in the literal sense. The war on terror is like saying ‘the war on poverty.' It's just a metaphor." To which Bush replies, "Anyone who thinks we are fighting a metaphor does not understand the enemy we face and has no idea how to win the war and keep America secure."
And finally, it comes down to a matter of personal experience. Asked how 9/11 had changed him, Mr. Kerry replies, "it didn't change me much at all." In contrast, Mr. Bush stresses how profoundly that day has changed his outlook and his sense of purpose: "I made the pledge to myself and to people that I'm not going to forget what happened on September the 11th."
As Fred Barnes succinctly puts it, "George W. Bush is a September 12 person. John Kerry is a September 10 person." The American electorate will make a profound choice next week, deciding whether to turn back the clock to the law enforcement model in place before September 11 or whether to continue with the war model in place since that day.
It is a momentous decision for Americans, indicating whether or not they take seriously the mortal threat of Islamist terrorism. It is also a verdict that Americans make on behalf of the entire civilized world. That is why the stakes are so high.