George W. Bush is damaged goods, but he has found his campaign voice–the forked tongue of the high road/low road politician. The lofty Commander in Chief will solemnly remind Americans of their fears, while his wicked twin tears viciously into John Kerry’s flesh. When the Warrior President tries to sound like Churchill, he affects a peculiar Texas staccato. “We-must-be-strong. We-must-be-resolute-against-these-cold-blooded-killers.” But the down-and-dirty Prez turns sly and sarcastic, inviting regular guys to share a belly laugh over Kerry’s “nuances,” while Bush’s surrogates smear Kerry’s Bronze Star in Vietnam as phony. What’s this wobbly peacenik talking about anyway? We’re at war, remember. No time for lying, liberal sissies.
The Bush campaign strategy is already in play before the GOP convention. The President runs on fear and character assassination–big fear and big lies. While Bush’s claims and insinuations are utterly distant from the truth, the strategy can’t be dismissed, because Republicans are so experienced at this kind of politics. GOP marketing proceeds on a cynical assumption that voters can be moved by the brazen repetition of evocative falsehoods and broad-brush caricature. Their model is 1988, when Bush’s daddy used the racist “Willie Horton” ads and “card-carrying member of the ACLU” to defenestrate Michael Dukakis, a decent and capable governor they turned into a national joke.
For big fear, Bush Junior has the federal government at his disposal, and he’s using it to pump up anxieties. Does anyone think the “Ashcroft alert,” based on old and murky material, was anything more than a thematic tuneup for the fall campaign? Nor was the White House necessarily upset by the headlines about FBI agents chasing after antiwar protesters who might be planning “violent” actions at the GOP convention. Anything that polarizes public opinion about unknown dangers is assumed to help Bush. Meantime, his war planners are suddenly escalating the “threat” rhetoric surrounding Iran and its nuclear bomb-making. Anything that changes the conversation from Iraq can be helpful too.
For personal slander, the Bush regime is hurling mud at Kerry’s brightest armor–his sterling reputation as a decorated Vietnam War hero. The Swift Boat veterans attacking Kerry are clearly agents of the Republican machine–financed by Bush money boys and already exposed for multiple lies and distortions. The well-coordinated attack has produced a media tempest, but this is August, the doldrums between conventions, and we can’t yet know how much real damage may be done.
What this farfetched smear demonstrates for sure, however, is the President’s desperation. The man will do anything (didn’t we already know that?). If Kerry is smart, he can turn this latest hit job into an excellent opportunity. Since Bush has raised the question of character and honesty, by all means let’s talk about it. Kerry should open every speech with that line and then review the shameful evidence of Bush’s mendacious character, from the fictitious threats from Iraq to the 5 million jobs his rich-guy tax cuts were going to produce for ordinary Americans. Which candidate trashes the truth? By all means let the election be decided on that question.
Despite the propaganda barrage, John Kerry seems to be holding his own. The most recent Gallup poll reported a slight improvement in the President’s numbers but also found that Kerry is now more trusted to handle the war in Iraq by 48 percent, compared to 47 percent for Bush. That’s a remarkable finding, given that effective war-making was supposed to be Bush’s best and biggest card. Indeed, given the bloody muddle in Iraq, many Americans may be in the mood for more nuance in US foreign policy and less extremism from the White House.