It's a puzzling paradox: Recent polls show that voters are more worried that we are losing the war on terror, more convinced that we're about to be attacked, and more certain that the invasion of Iraq has put America at greater risk from terrorists. And yet, these same voters overwhelmingly believe that President Bush will do a better job of protecting them from terrorists than John Kerry.
Isn't that like believing that the embezzler who just ran off with your life's savings is the perfect guy to manage your finances?
Indeed, national security is one of the precious few issues on which voters think Bush is up to snuff -- the same voters who turn thumbs down on his handling of the deficit, jobs, health insurance, the environment, Social Security and Iraq. Which is why the Bush campaign is starting to resemble one of those single-issue cable networks: the 24-hour Terror War Channel -- All Anxiety, All the Time.
Whether it's Bush's flag-draped campaign ads, his newly aggressive defense of the PATRIOT Act, or Karen Hughes' mind-boggling linking of abortion rights and al-Qaida, our war president's message is clear: "Vote for me or your days may be numbered."
In response, Kerry has entered into a hissing contest with Bush over whose national security plank is more impressive: "My first responder is bigger than yours!"
But trying to out-macho the counterfeit cowboy from Crawford is the wrong strategy.
I say let Bush run on 9/11; Kerry needs to run on 9/12.
Remember Sept. 12, 2001? On that day blood banks overflowed, money poured into charities, and so many people turned up to help at ground zero that most had to be turned away. It was the best of times amid the worst of times. In the wake of that horrific attack, Americans were eager to work for the common good -- to be called to a large, collective purpose.
But George Bush squandered his chance to tap into that national impulse.
Granted, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the president paid a lot of lip service to the concept of shared sacrifice. "We have much to do, and much to ask of the American people," he said in a speech four days after the attacks. And at a press conference a month later, he echoed the theme, saying simply: "America is sacrifice."
But there is a world of difference between spouting Churchillian rhetoric and championing a cause that will transform our society. Far from using his post-9/11 political capital to rally us as a nation to a vision that is bigger than the things that divide us, all the president called on us to do was to go shopping and "get down to Disney World in Florida."
John F. Kennedy asked us to "ask not" what our country can do for us. George Bush asked us to open our wallets.
But spending a wad of cash should not be all that our leaders ask of us. The truest expression of American character has always been not our will to amuse ourselves but our choice to give of ourselves.
Nevertheless, nearly three years down the war-on-terror road, the only sacrifices being made are by those risking, and all too frequently giving, their lives on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq -- and by their families back home.
And I don't think the newly approved bill allowing members of the National Guard and Army Reserve to tap into their IRAs without penalty will make up for the repeated extended deployments they're having to endure.
Despite the passage of time, the values and spirit that emerged on 9/12 are still very much a part of who we are as a country -- and they can still be harnessed if we have a president who will appeal to more than voters' narrow self-interest and unspoken prejudices. A president with the fortitude to ask more of each and every one of us.
That's why Kerry needs to take a page from FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps, JFK's Peace Corps and LBJ's Vista, and usher in a new era of national service and shared sacrifice.
George Bush seems convinced that the way to win is by playing on our fears. John Kerry can prove that the answer lies in appealing to our better instincts.
The choice awaiting the American people in November couldn't be more clear-cut: Vote your fears or vote your hopes. If we do the former, Bush wins. But if we are inspired to do the latter, we could reach the 50 percent of eligible voters who've given up on our democracy -- and it could be Kerry in a landslide.