The general-election campaign has begun. The Democratic primaries aren't concluded, of course, but the contours of Election 2004 are clear. The Democrats spent the last several months treating President Bush like a pinata, and this week the president struck back.
The president's handlers knew exactly what he was planning to do and took special pains to make sure no one missed it. Recognizing that the State of the Union Address was a snooze and the "Meet the Press" interview a stumble, they wanted the word out: The campaign is now in full throttle, and the White House is not going to be a conscientious objector to combat.
That's why the president's remarks Monday before the Republican Governors Assn. are so telling of so much. He discounts, for example, the possibility that Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina can topple Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. He sees his competitor as a major-league liberal, out of touch with the mainstream not only of the country but also of the Democratic Party. He sees Sen. Kerry's campaign as a waffle house. He sees the 2004 election as a stark choice between two different visions of the country, its culture, its economy, its foreign policy.
The Democrats would agree with the latter statement. Throughout their caucus and primary campaign they have sought to emphasize, and by doing so to widen, the gulf between the two parties. Note that their critique is remarkably like the president's: There is almost no agreement between Republicans and Democrats on taxes, Iraq, the Patriot Act and, even if the Democrats are reluctant to say so, gay rights.
A different Bush
This will be no rerun of the 1992 campaign, when the president's father portrayed Bill Clinton as a failed governor of a small state and a radical to boot -- and lost the election. This President Bush is in a stronger position than the earlier President Bush -- despite the lingering economic distress, there are signs of recovery in 2004 that were not present a dozen years ago -- and his likely rival lacks some of the political skills that Clinton had in such surplus.
The tack this Team Bush is taking is far different from the one the first Team Bush took. In 1992, the GOP portrayed Clinton as "Slick Willie," and the fact that the label stuck should have prepared the nation for some of the travails and tragedy that were to follow. This Democratic candidate may have many faults, and there's nothing like a presidential campaign to bring them out. But possessing Clinton's slickness is not one of them.
The last Bush re-election effort, having succeeded so well in portraying Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts as a doctrinaire liberal, tried the same tactic on Clinton. It didn't work because Clinton wasn't doctrinaire and barely was liberal, which accounted for so many of the misgivings so many Democrats harbored but seldom expressed. The current Republican strategy team may try to portray Kerry as a doctrinaire liberal, but they're also gearing to portray him as a doctrinaire opportunist.
That's why the president's remarks Monday were so important. Here's the most relevant passage: "The other party's nomination battle is still playing out. The candidates are an interesting group with diverse opinions: For tax cuts and against them. For NAFTA and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. In favor of liberating Iraq and against it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."
GOP will target inconsistency
Good line, as these things go. But its significance is that the GOP believes that Kerry is vulnerable primarily because he is inconsistent. His response is not hard to contemplate: I've grown, I've considered the issues, seen the nuances and calibrated my views to my own changing perceptions and to changes in circumstances in the nation and the world. That is a classic Kerry response, perfectly suited to the seminar rooms at Yale but perhaps too subtle for a dais or debate.
The GOP's Web site already is making consistency an important part of the Kerry attack. The Republican strategists have found a clever name -- "Kerrymandering," a play off the name of Elbridge Gerry, the Marblehead, Mass., master of the gerrymander -- and this week they are having a fine time showing Kerry bobbing and weaving through the question of whether he supports gay marriage, or a ban on gay marriage, and a multitude of other permutations of the question the Democrats would most like to avoid and the Republicans would most like to engage.
Turning the issue
But the president's remarks are remarkable for another reason. In election after election, the Democrats have watched their rivals take their most potent issues and make them their own. Here's an excerpt from Bush's speech that is an indication that it's happening again: "We've used the power of this country to end forever two of the most violent and dangerous regimes on Earth. More than 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq are reclaiming the rights and dignity of free men and women. And America has been proud, once again, to lead the armies of liberation."
The next time the Democrats raise questions about Bush's commitment to civil liberties, expect to hear the president respond by talking about his commitment to civil liberties in nations led by tyrants.
One more example from the president's speech to the governors: "We had to confront corporate crimes that cost people jobs and savings. So we passed the strongest corporate reforms since Franklin Roosevelt and made it clear that we will not tolerate dishonesty in the boardrooms of America."
Now that's a rhetorical tour de force -- the use of a Democratic issue and of a Democratic icon in the service of a business-minded president and the first chief executive to hold a graduate degree in business. It's a sign of many things, but mostly it is a sign, should Kerry choose to heed it, that defeating Howard Dean and keeping John Edwards at bay was one thing, but driving George W. Bush out of the Roosevelt Room in the White House is going to be a challenge of quite another magnitude.
David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.