Thursday, September 23, 2004
First, I didn't hear the President's speech (or any other speech at the convention) because I was in Canada on vacation at the time. But I must admit, I was considerably underwhelmed reading it in print. It wasn't as bad as the Kerry speech . . . but that's about all I can say in its favor.
What was wrong with it? Well, I thought Bush had three big things to accomplish in his speech. One: reassure voters about his judgement, particularly in handling the war. As I explained last month, people feel good about Bush's values and the conviction with which he holds them. They know he's decisive and they believe he's resolute. Their concern is: does he make *good* decisions? Bush needed to reassure people on that score. This was his toughest job and the most important one; this is the one negative on matters of character that could sink this President, and frankly, perceptions of character matter more than just about anything in these races.
Two: articulate a coherent rationale for a second term. Bush was extremely specific about what he was running to accomplish in 2000. Kerry said essentially nothing about his plans in his convention speech, which I think accurately reflects his disinclination to do anything about anything. Bush needed, as he did in 2000, to explain why we need to elect him, what he is out to accomplish and, in broad strokes, how he's going to do it, and wrap it up in a package that only he can carry across the threshold.
Three: Bush needed to pull the coalition together. Part of every election campaign is tying together disparate groups of voters, keeping that unstable coalition together as you cross the finish line. Bush needed to articulate his agenda in such a way that the various parts of his coalition heard the most important things they needed to hear, but also in such a way that these disparate groups agreed they belonged together in the same broad coalition.
I think Bush basically failed at all three tasks. On the first, he offered essentially nothing. The foreign policy message of the whole convention was, I think, badly off, and the positive bounce from all the 9-11 stuff could evaporate quickly if Bush cannot dispel the key concern about his character. Bush is not backing off from democracy happy-talk; he's pushing it more and more. Bush is not admitting the difficulties in Iraq; he just keeps asserting that he is determined to prevail, and smearing opponents of the war as aiding and abetting the enemy. He is making a stand in the corner he painted himself into. That's very, very risky.
Mind you: I don't expect nor want Bush to repudiate the Iraq war, nor do I think it was inappropriate of him to talk about 9-11, or even to focus on it. But, as I said before the convention, Bush needs to be concrete, down-to-earth, and realistic in his description of his own foreign policy. He does not need to soar rhetorically and talk about saving the world. He did exactly the opposite. And while it probably thrilled people in the room, I don't think it will wear well for the rest of the campaign.
On the second point, again, I think Bush flubbed it. We got a grab-bag of proposals - for health care, education, etc. etc. - a Federal cornucopia with no price tags . . . and then a swipe at Kerry for proposing $2 trillion in new spending. The cognitive whiplash was just too much for me. I was finally convinced that Bush has no idea how his agenda fits together, and that he doesn't care. Which was very depressing for me. I know Bush is capable of tying his preferred policy mix together into a coherent bundle, because he did it in 2000. He did not do it this year. So far as I can tell, what Bush *really believes* is: (a) he stands for freedom and low taxes and against big government spending; (b) whenever and wherever someone is hurting, it's government's job to move, and deficits don't matter. No one can honestly and coherently believe both these things at once, but after his speech, I'm convinced Bush does. It's not just a matter of necessary political compromise. This is what he believes. Very depressing.
I want to stress something here as well. I'm not a libertarian, and I know Bush isn't a libertarian. I don't think running against government is what he believes or what he should do, nor is it what I would want him to do. But if Bush believes in an activist government - which clearly he does - he needs to explain what distinguishes his government activism from the other team. Bush could defend much of his spending - No Child Left Behind, the AIDS initiative, the faith-based initiative - as an effort to make government more *effective* by making it *accountable* and infusing it with *good values.* That's an explanation that could be persuasive to middle-middle-moderates and to much of the conservative base, even if not to libertarians. Bush did this effectively in 2000. He did a lousy job of it this year. And as a consequence, one is left wondering: why do we need to vote for him to get these goodies? Why not trust Kerry to deliver them just as well or better? Kerry can win both ways against Bush-as-Lyndon Johnson: if you *want* an activist government, why not vote Democrat? And if you *don't* then why vote Bush? Why not vote for a protest candidate - or for the guy (Kerry) who at least pays lip-service to fiscal discipline?
This is why Bush largely flubbed the third point as well, though he did better on this score than on the others. No, he didn't reassure people about his judgement; no, he didn't present a coherent vision for a second term. But he did basically talk to the nation as a whole, and he did seem to be cognizant of some of the different interest groups in his coalition and how to keep them happy. But if I were a grumpy Republican, or if I were an Independent who was not positively motivated by either the Iraq war or by Bush's social-issues agenda . . . then it would be hard for me to find anything to get me excited about Bush and his campaign.
I think Bush is still the odds-on favorite to win. Forget the recent puffy polls; this race is going to get tight. But Bush is favored because he looks like he's pulled decently ahead in Ohio, because I think he's more likely than not to win Florida, and if he wins those two states it's hard for Kerry to win even if he picks off both New Hampshire and Nevada. The electoral map is just slightly tilted Bush in a neck-and-neck race. But Bush has absolutely not put this away. If Kerry gets some message discipline, if Bush continues not to engage publicly with reality as opposed to rhetoric, and if Kerry is smart in the debates, then Dan Rather's absurd bias and the Swift Vets' sniper attacks will not win this race for Bush. *He* has to win it; no one can win it for him.
If the race tightens as I expect it to, the debates could be terribly important for both candidates. If Kerry is smart, what he will do is press Bush hard, across the board, in the first debate, with substantive attacks. Why hasn't Bush fired anyone for 9-11, for the Iraq WMD mess, for the Ahmad Chalabi mess, for the looting, for Abu Ghraib? Why are the only people who leave the Administration people like Larry Lindsey who admit the inconvenient truth? Why didn't Bush tell Congress the price tag of the Medicare drug bill? Why was that bill written to favor drug companies rather than the taxpayer? Why won't Bush admit that Iraq has not turned out as expected, by any stretch of the imagination? You pick your favorite attack.
Kerry should not allow Bush to turn the tables on him and demand that Kerry come up with better - consistent - answers than Bush has. Kerry should, with every question, make this a referendum on Bush, and a referendum on his character at least as much as on his policies. Because, you know, people don't vote on policies. I mean, there are people who vote on guns, or abortion, or other single-issue matters. But most people vote on character: will this person make good decisions, decisions that are the ones I would want him to make, decisions that will benefit me and my family, decisions that are right for the country. Kerry has to bolster the impression among many voters that Bush's decisionmaking process is severely flawed, and that the country is suffering for it. I do not think there's a majority who understands the difference between Kerry and Bush's economic policies or between their foreign policies in any kind of detail. Nor do I think there's anything close to a majority who can be convinced that Bush is venal, corrupt, in the pocket of special interests, whatever. But put together the 40% or so die-hard Democrats with the tidy number of people who think the country is going the wrong way, and Kerry wins. The way to win those people over is: undermine their confidence in the President, in his judgement and his character.
The debates are a key forum for Kerry to press the attack, because Bush can be rattled, just as he was in the primary campaign when he debated McCain. He was never rattled debating Gore, but you know, Gore walked right into Bush's trap because Gore, exceptionally for a politician, has almost no ability to read a situation. Bush stood there like a deer in the headlights in the first debate and Gore still lost because he came off as an arrogant prig; no one even listened to what he said. But the dynamics will be different this time. Yes, Kerry is also an arrogant prig, and he's no wizard at reading a situation. But expectations are much higher of Bush this time. Structurally, Bush is on the defensive, because he's the incumbent. If Kerry keeps Bush there, and questions his character, Bush could lose his cool. And if he loses his cool, and Kerry keeps his, Bush will lose the debate.
And Bush cannot afford to lose a debate. Three draws, yes; if Kerry can't draw blood, Bush wins by default. But a single loss could be fatal if it upsets the dynamics of the race late in the game.
Again, I think Bush has the edge: because Kerry is a terrible candidate, the electoral map favors Bush, he has momentum, etc. I also think the economy will be at least mildly supportive of Bush over the next couple of months, not that it makes much of a difference at this point; people's opinions about the economy don't change that quickly. But if Bush starts coasting and listening to his own happy-talk, he could have a very rude awakening some time in October, and by then it will be too late.