Reflecting on President Bush’s press conference last week, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry concluded that the “home base for George Bush … is terror. Ask him a question, he’s going to terror.” Kerry then added that “part of my task obviously is to convince America — we don’t have to beat him on it — but we have to convince America of my ability to be able manage that as effectively or more effectively if possible, and I think we can.”

For a candidate who wants victory in November, however, this rhetoric is weak. Surely, Kerry advisers remembering Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory over George H. W. Bush would point to the power of economic concerns over the American voter. A presidential campaign that depends on America’s continued economic decline is hardly good politics, or good ethics. True, prospects don’t look especially good for job growth, and it seems each week brings a new public relations crisis for the Bush administration. But at any time a national security crisis can make poor economic news, and public relations battles look like trivial pursuits. Terrorists could strike America at any time. To be sure of victory, Kerry must do better. To be a complete candidate — a candidate who inspires and actually leads his country by attacking every public policy problem, no matter the risks — he must make anti-terrorism a key part of his policy agenda and campaign.

The Kerry campaign needs a pro-active, offensive policy response to the war on terror. Criticism of Bush’s conduct of the war on terror is easy, and Richard Clarke’s new book already makes this case eloquently. After letting Bush set the terms of debate on terrorism for months, why not shake things up by making Bush and the Republican Party respond to Democratic proposals?

Nuclear proliferation policy is a fine place to start. It had a clear precedent in the 1960 presidential election, when John F. Kennedy berated the outgoing Eisenhower administration for allowing a “missile gap” to develop between the United States and the Soviet Union. In retrospect, scholars have shown that while this strategy made for good politics, it had little bearing on reality. The current nuclear proliferation crisis is real though, and it shows few signs of improving. Easily accessible and uncontrolled nuclear stockpiles in Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere could fall into the hands of al Qaeda or other terrorists. Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a military expert and executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has concluded that “We’re losing the war on proliferation.” Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information, gives a grimmer assessment: “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if nuclear weapons are used over the next 15 or 20 years … first and foremost by a terrorist group that gets its hands on a Russian nuclear weapon or a Pakistani nuclear weapon.”

The policy solution for arms control in the former Soviet Union is clear — fully funding the well-established and bipartisan Nunn-Lugar program for anti-proliferation. According to Republican Senator Richard Lugar, co-founder of the initiative, in its 10-year long existence the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Program has achieved the separation of 6, 212 nuclear warheads from their missiles and accounted for the destruction of 520 intercontinental ballistics missiles (ICBMs), 451 ICBM silos, 122 strategic bombers, 424 nuclear air-launched cruise missiles, and 194 nuclear test tunnels.

Yet, the Nunn-Lugar Program has little money to support it, and Bush has proposed a $41 million cut in “cooperative threat reduction” with Russia. “We’re at this crucial point,” admonishes Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “And how we handle these situations in the next couple of years will tell us whether the nuclear threat shrinks or explodes. Perhaps literally.”

John Kerry should take these warnings to heart and defend the Nunn-Lugar plan and the bipartisan, common sense principles with as much passion as his economic agenda. Fighting the war on terror with aggression doesn’t necessarily mean using the military force; it simply means standing up for the safety of Americans and the preservation of American ideals. But by downplaying anti-terror policy, or anything other national security policy for that matter, Kerry puts these at risk. This is a losing strategy for his campaign and for the country. If Kerry is afraid of debating Bush on terror policy, why should the American people entrust him with their safety? Why should they ever entrust Democrats again to keep America safe? If Kerry makes counter-terrorism his signature issue and succeeds in making Democrats strong on national security, he will surely leave a legacy as proud and distinguished as JFK’s. This time the missile gap is real.

John Coggin is a junior in Silliman College.