If the Democratic Party had any sense at all, George W. Bush would be reeling going into the Republican convention next week. There would be television commercials on every channel replaying over and over again Bush complaining in his 2000 debate with Al “Tennessee Lisp” Gore about profiling of Muslims at airports.
As pictures of the 19 hijackers flashed across the screen, the tape would play: “Arab Americans are racially profiled in what’s called secret evidence,” swing voters would hear Bush say. “People are stopped. And we’ve got to do something about that.” Another commercial could question the Bush-endorsed post-September 11 policy over at the FBI that emphatically denied that they would look for “individuals of any particular religion or from any particular country.”
Fortunately for Republicans, Democrats would never dare stalk such a sacred cow, and it’s worth pointing out that the recent trouble Ted Kennedy has had getting on a plane shows the shortcomings inherent in profiling. Drowning one person years ago doesn’t make you a terrorist. It just means you can’t be president.
No, Democrats have not been bold this election cycle, so fortune is passing them by. There was little to no bounce after their mind-numbing convention last month. Instead of offering voters outside the vast cadres of Michael Moore fans something new, Democrats have decided to spend all of their time either criticizing the war in Iraq (which their candidate voted for), or rehashing the events of four months 35 years ago in Cambodia. Or was it Vietnam? Well, wherever it was, there was definitely a boat and heroism worthy of any pulp fiction novel.
In fact, the message of the entire convention a few weeks ago seemed to be: “John Kerry: He’ll Chase Down Terrorists And Take Them Out Like They Were Viet Cong Soldiers In The Cold Bad Winter of ’69.” But then Kerry screwed the whole Alpha male thing up by telling a bunch of “journalist/activists” at the UNITY 2004 Conference a week later that he planned to fight a “more thoughtful…more sensitive war on terror.”
That sort of sentiment might fly with a bunch of journalists who spent the last year making goo-goo eyes at Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, but it’ll sink like a rock in Middle America.
NOW THE CHATTERING CLASS is abuzz with debate. The question on the table is: What grand maneuvers will be required of George W. Bush at the Republican convention to effectively counter Kerry’s acceptance speech? Playing along, Bush aides have been promising anybody with a pen and notebook that the President’s speech will lay out a detailed and ambitious second-term agenda.
Of course, most of what is being suggested by the punditocracy is bunk. Bush does not need to be Winston Churchill at the upcoming convention. He needn’t be overly ambitious in policy. Indeed, his grandest failures have occurred when his policy became too “visionary” (i.e., the prescription drug bill, the farm bill, and No Child Left Behind). And while a vibrant defense of his broad policies is appropriate, getting into a defense of the minutiae against the whining, constant stream of Democratic complaints this past year will only further muddy the message.
What Bush does need to do is turn back the clock. He needs to reconnect with the inner rock that we saw for about a year after September 11; the part of him that said simple things like “You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” and “Dead or alive, it doesn’t matter to me.” Black and white. The President should leave the shades of gray in Crawford. We haven’t seen the stripped-down version of Bush in a long time, and it has hurt his relationship with the American people.
Whether Republicans like to admit it or not in an election year, almost any other rank-and-file Republican voter could have made a better case for the war in Iraq this year than Bush did. The reasoning, rationale and moral standing were clearly there, but were lost in the translation. On Meet the Press, Bush himself seemed confused as to why we went to war with Iraq.
Put Rumsfeld, Condi, Cheney, or even Powell in front of Russert and they would have knocked such basic questions out of the stadium. But when Bush searched for nuance, he came off as confused, or, worse, lacking in conviction about the war. Combine that with my colleagues’ unwillingness to report any of the positive developments in Iraq and it is no wonder support for the war has plummeted.
IT NEEDN’T HAVE HAPPENED this way. More important, it needn’t remain this way. But the answer does not lie in Bush adopting his Democratic challenger’s much publicized proclivity for “complexity” and “nuance.” The folks who are into that sort of thing — defined broadly as “defeatism” — are already voting for Kerry. If Bush seems as confused as his opponent, he opens a door for Kerry to seem a more palatable candidate.
It’s worth remembering that scores of Democrats became Republicans on September 11, thus the 2002 surprise electoral rout. But if Bush fails to find the strength and moral clarity that we saw two years ago, there is nothing keeping these folks around. With most Nader voters likely to support Kerry, recent Republican converts will be vital.
This is no time, as Joe Lieberman was so fond of saying, to “sound an uncertain trumpet.” Bush should stride up to that podium next week and tell the American people that he has not forgotten the fight we face, or who struck the first blow, and that our war continues whether the rest of the world approves or not.
Should he touch on taxes? The economy? Social Security reform? Bring ’em on. But at the end of the day the most basic pitch Bush needs to make is that the society that makes all of that possible must survive. What a contrast that will make with all the violence and chaos likely to be fomented by the liberal hordes outside. The contrast will be sharp and absolute, but only if Bush decides to make it so.
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