The Selling of the President: Will Myth Triumph Over Reality?
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, October 12, 2004
George W. Bush is facing what would appear to be an incumbent president's worst nightmare. The economy has fared badly on his watch. And the occupation of Iraq, the basis of his image as a "war President," is looking even worse. If that's not bad enough, his reasons for invading Iraq in the first place have officially evaporated.
Yet the race is still a dead heat. How can this be? Let's look at his excuses first. On the economy, give Mr. Bush (or his handlers) credit for correctly pointing out in last Friday's debate that he inherited the recession that began in March 2001, and that it was a result of the bursting of the stock market bubble. Of course that bubble was the product of a bi-partisan policy blunder, so he ought to take half the blame for his own party.
But the recession ended in November 2001, nearly three years ago. So there has been plenty of time for millions of jobs to be created, as normally happens when the economy grows. We can therefore conclude that his tax cuts didn't do the trick -- he will be the first president since the Great Depression, as Mr. Kerry correctly noted, to preside over a net loss of jobs.
Real wages have also fallen over the past year. And census data from prior years shows millions falling below the poverty level, and losing health insurance coverage -- even while the economy has been growing.
And the tax cuts, combined with the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, left us with quite a fiscal mess: the federal budget deficit is at near record levels for the 58 years since World War II ended, as a percentage of our economy. By the same measure, our national debt is bigger than it has been for more than 50 years.
So who would vote for George W. Bush? Well there are die hard Republicans, religious fundamentalists, anti-choice, anti-tax and other single-issue right-wing voters.
But these do not add up to a majority. Mr. Bush still has some millions of Americans convinced that he is a leader, a down-home type of ordinary guy that they can trust. At first glance this seems incredible: he lied to get this country into a disastrous war. And while he has no regrets about asking Americans from mostly low and middle income families to risk life and limb in Iraq, he wouldn't even ask his rich friends and political contributors to pay for the war. Instead he took advantage of both the war and the weak economy to rewrite the tax code in their favor, mortgaging the nation's fiscal future in the process.
But modern political marketing techniques, combined with the ability of a post-9/11 government to generate fear, are very powerful. The Democrats' big mistake has been to allow the myth of George W. Bush as a leader to prevail for so long. The Republicans took the gloves off right away, spending more than $85 million on character assassination before the electorate knew who John Kerry was.
The Democrats need not assassinate Bush's character but merely expose it. Here is a man, who as former Texas governor Ann Richards described him, "was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." The lazy, indolent son of one of America's most powerful families, who used their connections to keep him out of the Vietnam War, had everything handed to him. The real George W. Bush was the one Michael Moore showed the world in Fahrenheit 9/11: utterly lost and clueless about how to respond when informed of the attacks on the twin towers, going on vacation when the going got rough, more interested in his golf game than the mess he made in Iraq.
When Mr. Bush was preparing for war last year, local protestors in Albuquerque, New Mexico held up a sign that was instructive for liberals: "George W. Bush is Not a Cowboy." Indeed he is not -- most cowboys know what it is like to work for living. Nor is he a leader, an "ordinary American," a "War President," a "top gun" fighter pilot, or any of the other characters that the cynical puppeteers and costume designers dress him up to be. He is a complete fake, a marketing ploy. The Democrats have three more weeks to make that clear to some of the voters who haven't yet figured it out.