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Road to Victory Is Paved With Trust

In the Bush-Kerry race, credibility is priority No. 1.

March 19, 2004|Frank Luntz

The central question in the 2004 presidential election is this: Who is more credible on the issue of credibility?

From 9/11 to Iraq, from job security to retirement security, no issue matters more than credibility. History suggests that in times of increased anxiety and enhanced cynicism, Americans turn to a leader they can trust.

This is nothing new. Adlai Stevenson was clearly more intelligent and better qualified, but he lost twice to Dwight D. Eisenhower because Ike was the straight-shooting Man From Abilene. Jimmy Carter's "I'll never lie to you" was more than enough honesty to propel him to the White House in the first post-Watergate election. And the first President Bush lost his bid for reelection because he lost his credibility on all things economic during a recession.

In the six postelection surveys I've done since 1992, credibility has been the most desirable attribute in America's leaders. Voters want a president who "says what he means and means what he says." George W. Bush learned this lesson well. In 2000, he won because he was a regular guy, comfortable in his own skin, in contrast to Al Gore, who lived by the polls and reinvented himself more times in a single year than Madonna has in her entire career.

The moral clarity that Bush espoused and acted upon immediately following Sept. 11 was articulated at perfect pitch. Black-and-white language to a grieving nation was exactly what was called for and why his credibility surged even among those who had cast votes for his opponent just 10 months earlier. This was a president who responded to a critique from the European media about America's penchant for bullying by saying: "Look, I know what I believe and I know what I believe is right. My job isn't to nuance." But Iraq, and now the jobless economic recovery, has forced him to nuance, and his credibility has suffered. W. is learning that incumbency is a fickle mistress, and even the power of the bully pulpit has its credibility-enhancing limits.

Credibility is built not by quantity of words spoken but by the quality and consistency of the message delivered. Despite speeches from the Oval Office, the East Room and the U.N., too many Americans have heard far too many reasons why the ouster of Saddam Hussein was so essential and why the war will yield so much benefit in the years to come. Hundreds of hours of speeches, yet the president's credibility is still in jeopardy.

Was it about weapons of mass destruction? Was it the fear of Iraqi cooperation with Al Qaeda? Was it to liberate an oppressed people? Was it to make the world a safer place? Was it to establish a thriving democracy in the Middle East? All noble goals indeed -- but a year into the conflict, too many Americans remain unsure of just which was the real reason. And since Bush staked his political capital in rallying support for the war, Iraq is now inextricably linked to the issue of Bush's credibility.

Enter Sen. John F. Kerry -- with polling numbers to die for. Kerry seems like the uber-credible candidate right now -- impugning Bush at every turn while he himself remains above the political fray. Written off much too early and nominated much too easily, Kerry has yet to weather the full brunt of inspection by the press and the American people.

That is already changing. The Bush campaign is no longer sitting idly by while Kerry collects supporters the way kids collect baseball cards. The president's objective is exactly as it should be: Define Kerry as a candidate who lacks credibility. Kerry started the mudslinging; the counterattack was inevitable. This will be an exceptionally negative political season.

Already the GOP language police are in full force, applying words like "flip-flop" and "waffle" to describe Kerry's various policy "reversals." They are asking the senator to explain to voters why he voted for a war in Iraq he now denounces; for a Patriot Act he now criticizes; and for the No Child Left Behind Act, which he now condemns. These are significant votes on significant legislation, and they represent significant inconsistencies.

But pointing out Kerry's lack of candor will not restore the president's credibility. It has been said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. Ask Americans to define how a president earns their trust and they will tell you it is by demonstrating leadership under fire. This means that Bush not only has a right but a responsibility to talk about 9/11. It is the defining moment of a still-scarred nation, and of his administration.

Voters have more than seven months to decide whether Kerry's record makes him the credible leader that he claims Bush is not -- 9/11 is the right starting point.

In times of economic distress, we want to trust our president. In times of war, we need to trust our president.

Pollster Frank Luntz's clients have included Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

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