To bash, or not to bash? Bush, that is. And that is not the question. For it has already been answered. And the answer is, no. But not exactly.
The Kerryniks have decreed that this shall not be a week of overt W. slapping. In press conferences and interviews, Democratic honchos have said that criticizing Bush is not the aim of the convention. They want to use those valuable three hours of primetime coverage to boost John Kerry’s positive. During the campaign Kerry freely slapped Bush about. He called Bush’s foreign policy the most arrogant, inept and reckless in decades. Yet in campaign speeches on the road to the convention he has barely mentioned that guy he wants to trounce in November. And a chief Kerry strategist told me that “the Bush part of the story is already known. We don’t have to talk much about it at this stage. We need to talk about John.”
Before the official proceedings began on Monday, I wondered if it was wise for the Democrats to throttle back on the Bushwhacking. After all, I wrote a book entitled The Lies of George W. Bush, and anti-Bushism has been the main fuel of the Democrats’ efforts this year. Could it be that the Kerry campaign was spooked by Republicans and conservative pundits, who have tried to characterize vigorous criticism of Bush as irrational “Bush-hatred” and who have attempted to portray Kerry as a doom-and-gloom pessimist?
When Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe opened the convention on Monday evening, it did seem that the Dems were going to go easy on Bush. McAuliffe went vegetarian and stayed clear of red meat. He recited the usual Democratic litany about the Bush years: three million more Americans in poverty, four million more without health insurance, the largest budget deficit ever, the worst jobs-creation record in decades. But his conclusion was gentle: “We can do better.” This was not the usual pitbull barking cable TV viewers have come to expect from the chairman.
Former Vice President Al Gore poked at Bush, but without the harshness and anger he has displayed in recent speeches. After reminding the delegates they had to make certain that every vote would be counted in the next election (not that such a reminder was necessary) and running through a series of self-deprecating jokes (he called America “a land of opportunity, where every little boy and girl has a chance to grow up and win the popular vote”), he did note “the way the [Iraq] war has been managed by the administration has gotten us into very serious trouble.” And he criticized Bush for “confusing al Qaeda with Iraq.” But in his menschy speech, there was no name-calling, no rough stuff. He left the stage without reprising the line he used at the 1992 convention (and which was swiped by Dick Cheney at the 2000 Republican convention): “It is time for them to go.”
But then came Jimmy Carter and the Clintons, and it became evident that the Democratic strategy is not to eschew Bush-bashing. Instead, the Democrats are engaging in Bush-bashing without the Bush. That is, they are going after the deeds and the decisions, not the man.