Monday, February 23, 2004
Well, it took him long enough.
George W. Bush came out fighting tonight, and the thing is, the President fights smart. It was the right place to start swinging, as well. But tonight's speech to the Republican Governor's Association fundraiser in Washington, D.C., showed all the hallmarks of a man with an incredible sense of pace and timing.
Tonight's speech (full text here) had several different elements that I will touch on, the foremost of which is national security and the foundation of Bush's economic program: tax relief.
First, allow me to comment on his demeanor. One of the things that Ray Malone taught me is that in a television age, where the medium is the message, the man who speaks to the room is the man who is guaranteed to turn off the larger audience of voters. Howard Dean failed to remember that. He jazzed up the room but good. As time went on, however, and as the larger audience of viewers became all too familiar with the former Vermont governor, the more Democratic voters wanted an alternative.
Senator John F. Kerry (D-MA) has been speaking to the room, as well. A slightly larger room, perhaps. Bob Shrum has to be one of the best wordsmiths in the business, but he hasn't been able to really get Kerry beyond the base. So Senator Kerry is speaking to a larger audience, but because he is still trying to put John Edwards away, he can't commit himself to a truly national audience just quite yet.
Bush can, and that was what he did tonight.
The central question in people's minds has been Iraq. Though Saddam has been captured, and the military campaign there is going exceedingly well, people are still somewhat uneasy about the conflict. They recognize, in the main, that it was a good thing to depose the Middle East's last Stalinist regime. They also understand that the weapons of mass destruction cock-up was just that, a cock-up. Bush gets blamed for that, but only somewhat, I suspect. People do not buy into conspiracy theories such as those popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Moby.
Bush answered his critics directly, and in so doing, offensively:
In 2002, the United Nations Security Council yet again demanded a full accounting of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. As he had for over a decade, Saddam Hussein refused to comply. So we had a choice to make: Either take the word of a madman, or take action to defend America and the world. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time. (Applause.)
Others would have chosen differently. They now agree that the world is better off with Saddam Hussein out of power; they just didn't support removing Saddam from power. (Laughter.) Maybe they were hoping he'd lose the next Iraqi election. (Laughter and applause.) We showed the dictator, and a watching world, that we mean what we say. Because our coalition acted, Saddam's torture chambers are closed. Because we acted, the Middle East is more peaceful. Because we acted, Iraq's weapons programs are ended forever. Because we acted, nations like Libya have gotten the message and renounced their weapons programs. Because we acted, an example of democracy is rising at the heart of the Middle East. Because we acted, the world is more free, and America is more secure. (Applause.)
Here is the heart of Bush's critique of the Democratic party, its probable standard bearer, and its foreign policy apparatus: they temporize all too much. One of the things Bush will do this year is contrast John Kerry's Hamlet to Bush's King Harry.
King Henry V summons up his courage to hit the chicken dinner circuit...
Here is Kerry's vulnerability on Iraq: in his haste to flank Howard Dean on his left last year, the Senator voted against Iraqi reconstruction. In the runup to the Iowa Caucuses, Kerry morphed into an antiwar candidate to keep Dean from runnig away with the base voters and their money. Now he has to offer solutions to that question that differ from those of the President without opening himself up to charges of hypocrisy. Implicit in Bush's remarks is an assertion that a President Kerry will not act. I happen to share the President's sense that Kerry is vulnerable here. How else can one explain Kerry's gyrations over the weekend claiming that Bush was attacking his service record, when the President was manifestly silent on the whole affair?
The bolded section of Bush's remarks are a mildly caustic critique of the entire liberal line of thinking about the buildup to the Iraq campaign and that conflict's aftemath. Either the Left is for democracy in Iraq and for the liberation of Iraq or it is against democracy in Iraq and against the liberation of Iraq. To insert my own pidgin brand of Marxian thinking here; the Left cannot be for democracy in Iraq and still opposed to the liberation of Iraq: in the real world case of Iraq in 2003, the antecedent required the precedent to bring the desirable end (democracy in Iraq) about. Or, as Bush so rightly stated: "Maybe they were hoping he'd (Saddam) lose the next Iraqi election."
The economy is addressed with one, simple big idea: make tax relief permanent while slowly squeezing government spending to let revenue catch up with expenditure. Bush's central thesis is the following:
Our opponents have their own plan for these tax cuts -- they plan to take them away. They will use that money to expand the federal government. I have a better idea: To keep this economy growing, we will have fiscal discipline in Washington, D.C. To keep this economy going, the tax cuts must be permanent. (Applause.)
Now Bush is smart to press home just this point. If you go to John Kerry's website you'll find that there's a lot about deficits, but nothing concrete about deficit reduction. This is because John Kerry presides over an unruly coalition of demanding interest groups that each want their cut of the swag. John Kerry has proposed that the tax rates on wealthy individuals be raised back to their old levels. That's a wedge that Bush can exploit. If one recalls the Clinton package in 1992, the one thing that got dropped like a bad habit when Clinton got to Washington was the "middle class tax cut".
Even during the era of the surpluses, neither party concentrated on how to pay down the National Debt. Both parties had different ideas for what to do with the projected surplus. None of it involved a sinking fund. If voters think, for a moment, that "soak the rich" makes sense, it will be Bush's job to tell them what is going to happen to their money.
What satisfied me was Bush's demeanor and his sense of timing. There was neither bombast nor red meat; that is all to the good. Bush was speaking to the wider television audience. He came across as graceful, yet somewhat rough and ready. His sense of timing is perfect: Kerry is just about to wrap things up, but the Senator from Massachusetts has no money left for commercials. Bush has 150 million dollars. Bush has been taking a beating from the press and the Democrats for two months, so much so that I suspect some of Kerry's people were already arguing over office space in the West Wing.
Tonight, Bush told John Kerry that he has an uphill battle at hand. One, I suspect, the Bush will win, and handily.