The Magazine

The Dukakis Trap

From the March 15, 2004 issue: Why isn't George W. Bush's message getting out? The truth is the White House isn't trying very hard.

Mar 15, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 26 • By FRED BARNES and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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A SENIOR WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL spoke privately the other day about dramatic progress in the Middle East. Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have broken an impasse and are on the verge of a historic compromise on a new Iraqi constitution. It mandates a pluralistic, democratic Iraq when the United States hands over sovereignty on June 30. Meanwhile, as a consequence of American intervention in Iraq, reformers have been strengthened in other countries throughout the region. In Pakistan and elsewhere, official support for Islamic radicalism--and official tolerance for terrorism--are on the wane. Israel is going to withdraw from settlements for the first time in a generation--and the threat of terror there, too, seems reduced. There are even signs that the Europeans may actually help in efforts to reform the Middle East.

The White House official also had a lament. How come these breakthroughs have gotten so little serious attention? A good question--and one that spotlights a real problem for President Bush's reelection prospects.

No, we are not speaking here of the classic problem that would bedevil George W. Bush in even the best of circumstances: Republican presidents are almost always "embattled" and almost always have trouble "getting out the good news" through a not-so-vaguely hostile press corps. The problem is deeper than that.

The truth is, the White House isn't trying very hard.

Who has been assigned to publicly make the president's case for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage? we asked a White House official. The response was, well, er, no one in particular. And thus, one rarely hears the case made in a serious authoritative way, on an issue important to the president's prospects, but one which he is not personally going to address every day.

Assertiveness is lacking in the campaign, too. A former administration official said to a campaign aide that Bush had a great story to tell about tax cuts and the economic recovery. "Yeah, you're right," the aide replied. "But we can't be too Pollyannish. We don't want to seem out of touch."

Lack of concerted effort is the least alarming part of Bush's problem. What's worse is the White House and the Bush campaign seem to have been spooked. They seem fearful and tentative and weak at exactly the moment when they need to be confident and aggressive. Democrats and their allies are united behind Bush's opponent, John Kerry, and have no qualms about attacking the president on any subject whatsoever. At best, Bush's aides respond defensively. At worst, their clumsiness turns a minor flap into a prolonged controversy.

Last week's Democratic-generated pseudo-firestorm (perpetrated with extraordinary media collusion) over Bush campaign ads with fleeting pictures of Ground Zero offered a prime example of White House timidity. The charge that the ads demeaned the 9/11 dead was totally trumped-up and cynical. The response by press secretary Scott McClellan and former Bush adviser Karen Hughes was adequate--as far as it went. "I was at the White House and I saw how it affected our national public policy and it's just almost inconceivable to me that the next president can't talk about that day," Hughes said. Additionally, the Bush campaign produced ex-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, former police chief Bernard Kerik, and a 9/11 widow to support the ads.

Fine, but only for starters. Entirely missed was an opportunity to turn the tables on Kerry and his cohorts, who don't want 9/11 or terrorism to be salient issues in the campaign. The issue, McClellan or Hughes or someone should have said, is not a TV ad but how seriously we take the terrorist threat. Bush has declared war on terrorism. Kerry doesn't want to be a war president. He says the threat has been exaggerated and that law enforcement and intelligence should be the chief weapons against terrorists. This was the policy that allowed the attacks on 9/11 to happen. Bush thinks a more realistic and tougher approach is needed, including a strengthened Patriot Act, which Kerry opposes. Sadly, we heard little of this from Bush's defenders. Nor did they express outrage at the grotesque exploitation of 9/11 widows being trotted out with identical talking points attacking Bush's alleged "exploitation" of 9/11.