Bush and Carter
Going into tonight's final presidential debate, you hear a lot of Democrats--or at least the grey-headed donkeys of the stable--reminiscing about that crucial moment in the 1980 presidential debate when Ronald Reagan managed to frame the election as a referendum on Jimmy Carter's performance in office by asking the famous question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Wouldn't it be cool, they say, if John Kerry could come up with a killer line like Reagan's?
But you don't hear anybody talking about Jimmy Carter's strategy in that debate, and how it compares to that of another vulnerable incumbent, George W. Bush.
To make a long story short, Carter's debate strategy was called the "Two Futures" approach. It involved constantly comparing the two candidates' agendas for the future in a way that avoided Carter's own record, and made Reagan the riskier choice for positive change.
From all indications, George W. Bush doesn't much want to talk about his record on domestic issues, but also doesn't much want to talk about his agenda for a second term. But he does want to talk about the risky choice involved in electing a scary liberal like John Kerry to the presidency. It's sort of a "One Bad Future" approach that depends heavily on a negative characterization of his opponent.
So sure, it would be nice for Kerry if he can find a way to encapsulate Bush's failed presidency in a compelling way tonight, and during the remainder of the campaign. But by eschewing both a defense of his own record, and a positive argument for his own agenda, Bush is in some respects fighting with one hand tied behind his back, as a deliberate strategic decision. No matter how the scorekeepers rate tonight's contest, this will be a factor of increasing importance in the ultimate contest on November 2.