Loose Canons

Theme of the Week

Just as President Bush puts on his best performance in years, Vichy John anoints himself Ronald Reagan's heir. Won't do him much good, Clintonwise.

By 6.14.04

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For a while, I thought my eyes and ears deceived me, but no: the French party is really trying to convince us that Vichy John Kerry is the Gipper's heir, and that George W. Bush is not. Struggling -- so far unsuccessfully -- to come up with a campaign theme for their guy that kept people awake, the Dems are now trying to reclaim optimism for a party that -- ever since FDR died -- has only had doom and gloom to sell.

Reagan personified optimism. Confidence in the goodness and strength of the American people colored everything Mr. Reagan did. Clintonism was phony cheerfulness. Like the scene in Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights in which Prince John demands he be given bad news in a good way, Clintonism always has a smiling explanation for whatever is going to hell in a handbasket. It worked for Clinton, because we were at peace, our economy was thriving (no thanks to him), and the American people were convinced they could ignore what was going on around us.

Though Mr. Bush's poll numbers are slipping and sliding still, it's not because Kerry is landing any telling blows. In fact, Kerry's numbers are as soft as Dubya's. He can't define himself, or a theme for his campaign in a way that seems to satisfy anyone. So the themes change as quickly as they are announced. This week's theme is the dumbest yet: the same folks who gave us Hillarycare and Monicagate are selling the idea that this election is a contest between the Republican and Democratic model presidents: Reagan and Clinton. Please, dear Lord, make it so.

The Washington Post's John Harris wrote on Sunday, "After a week-long flood of commentary on the most popular Republican president of modern times, the country is about to be immersed in another tide of reminiscence and argument about the most successful Democratic president within the memory of most voters." Got that? Reagan was popular; Clinton was successful. (Never mind who was the proximate cause of the fall of the Soviet Union, and who it was who made us all teach our school kids the definition or oral sex.) Harris quotes Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill saying, "John Kerry does not in any way shy away from the Clinton legacy…He feels he was a participant in it" (by supporting Clinton's economic program). In fact, Kerry supported everything Clinton did to destroy the military by social experimentation and to weaken America's influence in the world. And just when things were looking better for Mr. Kerry, two horrid things have occurred. First, Mr. Bush has managed to jump back up from his personal doldrums. Second, Mr. Kerry's supposedly most powerful supporter has appeared to throw a cinderblock on Kerry's sinking ship.

Those of us who were brought to the brink of despair by Dubya's performance on Meet the Press a couple of months ago can take heart: not only has our guy recovered himself, he is better than he was before.

Did you see his performance at the press conference following the G-8 summit last week? It was positively eerie: as if Mr. Bush were possessed by Big Dog Don Rumsfeld. Mr. Bush had not only regained his confidence, he was brash and dominant. He put the press corps in its place a few times, with a smile and style. He turned them almost instantly from nasty and insulting to almost submissive. Mr. Bush called on some and ignored others, just as his staff had asked him to, saying "there are some mandatories here." Why? Gesturing to his unseen handlers, he said, "I have to live with these people. I don't have to live with you." When one reporter asked how his rocky relationship with allies affected the summit, Dubya said that when disagreements happened, they all "went to their corners and faced the wall." He praised his Georgia hosts. He went out of his way to quote Wacky Jacky as saying the food was great, because the hosts would "rather hear that from Jacques Chirac than from George Bush."

It was a masterful performance, better than he has done in any press conference since he was elected. Kerry's biggest fear is that Dubya will perform in that same Reagan-cum-Rumsfeld manner in the coming debates. If he does, the "game over" light will come on above Kerry's carefully coifed head. But the race is not won. Not yet. But help for Mr. Bush is coming from a logically -- but still unlikely -- source.

As I wrote when Gen. Wesley Clark's political campaign began (and well before he proved himself to be as loony as Dennis Kucinich), Clark's entry was for one purpose. Not to win, of course, but to prevent the Dems from drifting so far into Timothy Learyland that there would be nothing left around which to organize Miz Hillary's run in '08. With Kerry, the Dems have managed again to put a respectable face on their pure-as-Ivory-soap liberalism. Which means that Kerry needs to lose small, not lose big. To make sure he loses small, Bill Clinton has reappeared at a carefully chosen moment.

Kerry is struggling for traction, having failed to light a fire under most of the Democratic Party. Kerry hasn't created a candidacy around which people can unite. Yes, he has the Hate Bush crowd, the unions, and the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. He has money to burn now, and the MoveOn.org's will be spending tons in his favor. But what else? Nothing. There's no drama building up to his selection of a running mate. Nobody really cares if he chooses The Breck Girl or Evan Bayh. (It speaks worlds of the Dems that Kerry has spent so much time trying to lure John McCain onto his ticket). He says he'll not abandon Mr. Bush's policy in Iraq. He doesn't want to repeal the PATRIOT Act, he just wants to tinker with it. Is this the best Kerry can do? Apparently so.

Kerry can't be elected by the Hate-Bush crowd, the unions, and civil rights activists. He has to reach beyond the Hollywoodenheads to traditional Dems and to millions of uncommitted voters. There's only so much time he has to convince them to throw out a wartime president. And the time just got drastically reduced.

Lil' Billy's ponderous memoir, My Life, appears this week atop the bestsellers' lists. It will be the worst sort of revisionism, spurring heated media debate about what he's lying about, what he's exaggerating, and what -- if anything -- he is admitting. There will be so much coverage of Clinton, it will be hard to remember that Kerry is even campaigning.

Clinton will be everywhere reminding us of how life was so wonderful back when he was president, shedding tears for his mistakes, and asking our forgiveness again and again. From time to time, he will remember to make some nice comments about Mr. Kerry, but only in passing. His publicity campaign will, as Dick Morris has aptly pointed out, suck all the oxygen away from Kerry. As of tomorrow, Kerry's campaign will sink into media darkness, running a poor third in the attention-getting stakes behind an incumbent president who's running a war and a former president who's flacking a book and his own version of history. Clinton's book campaign won't be enough to defeat John Kerry. Mr. Bush will see to that. But when Kerry loses, he'll be able to look back at one Clinton and forward to another. And then he will understand.

TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think.


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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.