George W. Bush is damaged goods, but he has found his campaign voice--the forked tongue of the high road/low road politician. The lofty Commander in Chief will solemnly remind Americans of their fears, while his wicked twin tears viciously into John Kerry's flesh. When the Warrior President tries to sound like Churchill, he affects a peculiar Texas staccato. "We-must-be-strong. We-must-be-resolute-against-these-cold-blooded-killers." But the down-and-dirty Prez turns sly and sarcastic, inviting regular guys to share a belly laugh over Kerry's "nuances," while Bush's surrogates smear Kerry's Bronze Star in Vietnam as phony. What's this wobbly peacenik talking about anyway? We're at war, remember. No time for lying, liberal sissies.
The Bush campaign strategy is already in play before the GOP convention. The President runs on fear and character assassination--big fear and big lies. While Bush's claims and insinuations are utterly distant from the truth, the strategy can't be dismissed, because Republicans are so experienced at this kind of politics. GOP marketing proceeds on a cynical assumption that voters can be moved by the brazen repetition of evocative falsehoods and broad-brush caricature. Their model is 1988, when Bush's daddy used the racist "Willie Horton" ads and "card-carrying member of the ACLU" to defenestrate Michael Dukakis, a decent and capable governor they turned into a national joke.
For big fear, Bush Junior has the federal government at his disposal, and he's using it to pump up anxieties. Does anyone think the "Ashcroft alert," based on old and murky material, was anything more than a thematic tuneup for the fall campaign? Nor was the White House necessarily upset by the headlines about FBI agents chasing after antiwar protesters who might be planning "violent" actions at the GOP convention. Anything that polarizes public opinion about unknown dangers is assumed to help Bush. Meantime, his war planners are suddenly escalating the "threat" rhetoric surrounding Iran and its nuclear bomb-making. Anything that changes the conversation from Iraq can be helpful too.
For personal slander, the Bush regime is hurling mud at Kerry's brightest armor--his sterling reputation as a decorated Vietnam War hero. The Swift Boat veterans attacking Kerry are clearly agents of the Republican machine--financed by Bush money boys and already exposed for multiple lies and distortions. The well-coordinated attack has produced a media tempest, but this is August, the doldrums between conventions, and we can't yet know how much real damage may be done.
What this farfetched smear demonstrates for sure, however, is the President's desperation. The man will do anything (didn't we already know that?). If Kerry is smart, he can turn this latest hit job into an excellent opportunity. Since Bush has raised the question of character and honesty, by all means let's talk about it. Kerry should open every speech with that line and then review the shameful evidence of Bush's mendacious character, from the fictitious threats from Iraq to the 5 million jobs his rich-guy tax cuts were going to produce for ordinary Americans. Which candidate trashes the truth? By all means let the election be decided on that question.
Despite the propaganda barrage, John Kerry seems to be holding his own. The most recent Gallup poll reported a slight improvement in the President's numbers but also found that Kerry is now more trusted to handle the war in Iraq by 48 percent, compared to 47 percent for Bush. That's a remarkable finding, given that effective war-making was supposed to be Bush's best and biggest card. Indeed, given the bloody muddle in Iraq, many Americans may be in the mood for more nuance in US foreign policy and less extremism from the White House.
This is not 1988. To begin with, trying to portray Kerry as a cowardly liar in Vietnam simply doesn't have the emotional resonance of Willie Horton, especially since Bush himself wimped out during that war. More to the point, Kerry is not playing passive, as Dukakis did, but counterpunching smartly, forcefully challenging Bush on the warrior's own turf. Kerry has even introduced the magic word people yearn to hear about Iraq--"withdrawal"--albeit in a backhanded way. Kerry's position is lathered in nuances, calling for an "enormous reduction" starting next year, but he is now positioned to express his idea loudly and often (and "responsibly," of course), if he finds the nerve to do so. A big if, alas. Bush can hardly win points by attacking "withdrawal." He tried to top Kerry by promising to bring US troops home from Europe and Asia, but that's another attempt to change the subject.
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Kerry has also acquired an unusual asset--the neutrality of the major media. After playing compliant lapdog for the Warrior in Chief, the New York Times and Washington Post are now creating distance from their former hero and even challenging his distortions (both newspapers recently confessed institutional embarrassment for their go-to-war enthusiasm). At least the big media are not ridiculing Kerry as they did so freely with Al Gore in 2000 and Dukakis in 1988. Reporters and editors read the polls too. They know this incumbent President is in deep trouble. They can see his old moves are not working--not yet, anyway.
The core dynamic driving the 2004 campaign is this: George W. bet his presidency on two dubious, high-risk propositions, and he lost on both. First, he assumed that top-down tax cuts and other regressive, wealth-shifting measures would be sufficient to restore a prospering economy. Second, he decided after 9/11 to become the President of permanent war. As recently as nine months ago, this looked like a sure winner to the White House. Republican insiders assumed an easy re-election would be buoyed by the return of "good times" at home and patriotic fervor for triumph in Iraq. Wrong on both fronts.
When the opposite occurred, Bush was trapped by his own concocted image of Churchillian tough guy. It's too late to change, so Bush's best shot now is destroying Kerry. The President cannot acknowledge the disappointing results in Iraq or the struggling economy without diminishing himself. Plus, a lot of people have figured out that the man tells lies--big lies--or, worse, is not capable of handling hard facts and adjusting his policy accordingly.
In short, can people any longer trust this guy--not just on personal honesty, but his sense of judgment, his competence as President? That killer question is now stalking the Bush II regime. I discern (wishfully, perhaps) that the Kerry campaign understands that this contest will pivot on the public's declining trust in the President and is poking relentlessly at this vulnerability in different ways. I wish Kerry would put the attack more forcefully but, who knows, maybe he is right not to get too personal or, like Bush, hit below the belt.
The question of trust also threatens the right-wing agenda for governing. Bush's people assumed--correctly, it seemed--that an inert, alienated people would tolerate his conservative reforms, whacking away at long-established liberal government and social values, in deference to the popular war leader. But now the people are aroused and agitated by Bush's failures to deliver on his two big bets. He can still trot out the right-wing ideas again if he chooses--dismantling Social Security, taxing work and consumption instead of capital and corporations. But these radical propositions are burdened now by the same question: Can we believe anything this guy says? In any case, Bush's bizarre ideological convictions do not speak to what's on people's minds--the open-ended war and the faltering economy. Bush's great challenge is to divert people from the hard facts of his presidency and get them to focus on a set of fantastic smears of his challenger.
The intensity of this contest has put the Republic in fragile, possibly dangerous, circumstances. The Bush crowd is smart and skillful, and above all devious. They have demonstrated that to hold on to power, they will do anything. In the background chatter of Washington, a real worry is expressed that the White House might put the bombers aloft and strike somewhere in a supposed emergency -- maybe take out Iran's nuclear program? -- to change the subject big-time and to scare the bejeezus out of American voters just before the election.
Normally, I wouldn't take such talk seriously. But when I consider Bush's dilemma and all that's at stake, I begin to think these fears are not implausible. In a newly concocted crisis, would anxious Americans stampede to the President's side? Or would they see through the cynical charade and toss him out? I would bet on the latter, but I wouldn't bet the whole farm.