The Kerry campaign went up with an ad today in response to the president's new round of negative ads. The Kerry one took aim at the president's claims about the economy.
But Kerry really needs to hit back on defense too. Now.
I don't think that there's been a White House this off-balance in the last decade or two. That doesn't mean the president is going to lose the election. And it doesn't mean he's going to stay off-balance. But that's all the more reason for Kerry to move on the defense issue now.
The president has all the look of a prize-fighter who's in a daze after taking a few hits to the head and is struggling to get to the end of the round to steady himself.
Just consider the run of missteps.
I don't know anyone who thinks the president's first round of ads wasn't a goof. The new Mohammed Horton ads look likely to be the same. Then just yesterday the president had to cancel plans to announce his new 'jobs czar' (a new assistant secretary of Commerce with a brief to deal with off-shoring of American jobs) when it emerged that he was available for the gig because he'd done such a good job himself sending a whole slew of jobs to China.
In a sense, the problem is just one of appearances, just political. His ability to do the job -- whatever it was actually supposed to be -- wouldn't be affected by whatever he'd done previously. But then the whole 'jobs czar' stunt itself was political. So same difference. It was an immensely clumsy goof -- one for which, I assure you, someone at the White Huose got a monumental chewing out.
I speculated in my Hill column on Thursday about why the White House has had this run of stumbles. (My argument is that we're seeing how out of touch the White House is with how much its credibility has atrophied over the last eight months.) But that they've had them is really beyond dispute.
That's why it's time for Kerry to engage on the defense and national security issue. Since that's really what this election will come down to.
The president cannot win this election on the economy. Barring a rapid change of circumstances over the next three months the data and people's experience of the economy is as best too muddled for the president to run on it successfully.
But he can win on national security. And that's the reason Kerry should engage him on this issue now -- at a moment when the White House seems to be having great difficulty reacting to quickly changing events and shaping the direction of the campaign debate. This is the one issue on which Kerry cannot allow himself to be pigeonholed or adversely defined.
Does this take the debate onto more friendly territory for the president? Perhaps. But the shift will come eventually. And it's difficult to imagine a more propitious moment.