Jewish World Review August 30, 2004 / 13 Elul, 5764
Bush's key task: His reinvention as a true uniter
In 2000, Bush presented himself as a transforming force in domestic policy.
Terror: The great equalizer Bush's firm leadership and moral clarity, and the success in Afghanistan, rallied the nation behind him, which changed the political dynamic.
I believe that President Bush has made his decisions in the war on terrorism on the basis of what he thought was in the best interests of the country. But the political consequences couldn't be ignored. A strong war president was going to be a formidable force for a nation feeling at risk, even more formidable than a transforming president.
So, the political presentation of Bush began to change.
At the same time, however, the feeling that the nation was at war began to fade. The country hadn't forgotten 9/11. Terrorism, however, has come to be seen as a problem - a serious and highly dangerous problem, but not something that requires the comprehensive mobilization of a World War II.
Then there was the fourth disruption, and the most politically significant one: the Iraq war.
Peace in our time In 2000, Bush proposed a less adventuresome foreign and military policy. Early in his term, he sensibly disengaged somewhat from the United States trying to force-feed a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush has said that post-9/11, he evaluated the threat from Saddam Hussein differently. And the Bush administration adopted the position that the United States wouldn't be safe from terrorism until peace, democracy and economic progress were on the ascendancy in the Middle East.
Although Bush got strong support in Congress for the use-of-force resolution, the country was never as united behind the Iraq war as it was for the military effort in Afghanistan.
The intense animosity toward Bush began to incubate in the growing anti-war movement. And now, far from being a uniter rather than a divider, Bush runs for re-election as the most partisan-polarizing figure since Richard Nixon.
The failure to find stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and the costly and deadly post-Saddam commitment in Iraq have continuously eroded general public support as well.
About as many Americans now think that the Iraq war was a mistake as think it was the right thing to do. And for a president, war is a very big mistake to make.
And so, Bush goes into this week's Republican convention not as a triumphant transforming force in domestic policy. Instead, he is a war president whose most significant military engagement is increasingly being doubted.
Of course, elections ultimately get down to: Compared to whom? The terrorist threat is still the overriding backdrop of this campaign. John Kerry has not broadly established himself as a steadfast, strong leader prepared to protect the country against this threat. And his tendency to view domestic policy as a spending contest is unsettling.
So, Bush still has a chance to define the election in his terms. But that requires reintroducing himself to the American people this week, a difficult undertaking for an incumbent president.
The two big questions To succeed, Bush needs to do two things this week: one highly unlikely; the other will probably be attempted, but half-heartedly.
In the war on terrorism, Bush needs to somehow signal that he has learned the lessons of the Iraq war. That the American people can get Bush's resolve against terrorism without Iraq's miscalculations and commitments out of proportion to true American interests.
That's the highly unlikely one. Instead, the Bush campaign appears poised to make a full-throated defense of the Iraq war, continuing to insist that it is a seamless part of the war against terrorism.
Politically, that means that the election may very well turn not on the debates or the activities of either campaign, but on events on the ground in Iraq.
Second, Bush needs to reignite his transforming instincts and give the American people a fairly specific agenda for his second term.
This is the one that will probably be attempted half-heartedly. In the last month or so, the Bush campaign has dusted off long-dormant proposals that it touts as the "ownership society" agenda.
But repackaging old ideas doesn't meet the political need.
For example, reminding people that Bush supports individual retirement accounts as part of Social Security probably isn't enough. He said that in 2000.
If Bush wants to regain the transformational edge and change the dynamics of the election, he needs to advance a fairly specific proposal that addresses the knotty transitional costs he has thus far ignored.
The same can be said for Medicare reform and moving the country away from third-party payers for health care before it slips into a thoroughly nationalized delivery system.
That, of course, would be a high-risk strategy, and Kerry may be doing a good job of convincing the Bush campaign that cautious and steady will get the job done.
But the country needs bold, comprehensive reform. And Bush used to seem to want to provide it.
08/20/04: Bush's burdening the Middle Class
02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate