President Bush stated the obvious this week by saying the war against terrorists could never really be won, as in a traditional war. Rather, he explained that the US can "create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
Still, this concept of victory by slow ostracism of the enemy was portrayed in the media as "Bush says war not winnable." It was then quickly used by the Kerry campaign to imply Bush lacks "steady leadership."
To be fair, the Bush campaign has made similar distortions of John Kerry's comments about Iraq and the war on terrorism. The larger point is that presidential campaigns during wartime run the risk of candidates jumping on an opponent's comments for immediate political gain only to then inadvertently embrace a policy that they, as president, might later regret.
By knocking the "can't win" statement of President Bush, for instance, has John Kerry backed himself into an unreasonable policy of what "winning" the war would look like? As president, would he feel obligated to kill or capture every known terrorist, or try to achieve a surrender ceremony with Al Qaeda?
During the cold war, candidates often competed to show they would be tougher against communism, either by promising to beef up the military or wage war in third-world countries. While the Soviet Union was a real threat, some US actions to contain it ended up being useless or self-defeating, driven more by domestic politics than foreign realities.
Those pressures largely originated over a half century ago with a Republican election-year charge that Democrats had "lost" China to the communists in 1949. That simplistic accusation helped Eisenhower win in 1952. Neither party wanted to be seen as weak after that.
Campaigns can provide guidance to future leaders on how to conduct a war. But excesses in campaigning can also build up a steam of rhetoric and machismo that leads to bad policy.
Much of this 2004 campaign so far has been about character and qualities of leadership. That's all to the best. The Democrats, in their convention, touted Kerry's Vietnam record. In the Republican convention this week, the focus is on Bush's post-9/11 courage as a "war president."
But at times the tone has slipped into a game of one-upmanship over competing claims about which man would be better at preventing another 9/11.
Many nations, such as Britain during World War II, suspend elections during war to avoid such problems. The US hasn't, and shouldn't. But candidates can show restraint - and leadership - in campaign talk about a current war.