THE NEW YORK CITY CONVENTION was a smashing success. The Bush campaign and the White House should seize upon the convention's lesson and apply it to win this vital election. The lesson is obvious--the campaign is about President Bush and when we focus on making the case for his reelection, he sells just fine.
Since January, the president has stumbled politically. At times he has seemed small in the demanding presidential frame, and his campaign has difficulties with message. It has been as if the president's campaign has lost some faith in their candidate, become timid and defensive, and opted to follow the easiest path for a campaign with vast resources and doubts about the attractiveness of its own candidate: hammer the other guy and hope the voters decide to hate him worse.
Accordingly, much money and effort has gone into raising John Kerry's negatives, with sparse results. The Bush campaign can claim that it has indeed raised Kerry's negatives, and it has. But in the months leading up to the convention, all those higher John Kerry negative ratings have had a very limited effect on the president's wobbly standing in the overall race. That should not be surprising. Presidential reelection campaigns are stubbornly about the incumbent, not the challenger. George W. Bush was losing because far too many people wanted to replace him. Such voters discount worries about the challenger since they view almost anything as an improvement over a failed situation. Ultimately this campaign has little to do with John Kerry. It is instead a question about hiring or firing George W. Bush. And too often this year, the GOP has been absent from this crucial battlefield.
At the convention, however, the GOP got off the defensive and made its first full-bore case for Bush, his war in Iraq, and his reelection--and it worked magnificently. John McCain spoke powerfully and unapologetically of why we must fight. Rudy Giuliani reminded us of the president's grace and strength during the hard days following the events of 9/11. Arnold Schwarzenegger defined what it is that makes us all, from every wing of the party, proud to be Republicans. Dick Cheney made it clear that navigating the dangerous oceans of world politics in the age of terror is best left to the hawkish foreign policy grownups who serve this administration, not the utopian liberals of Kerry's Democratic party. Finally, the president gave a compelling speech about why he has done what he has, and why he is right to have done it. He made up for a lackluster State of the Union speech earlier this year with a clearly outlined agenda, and showed us that he feels every casualty of this war in his own heart.
The result was the first significant and dramatic poll movement in Bush's favor in nearly a year. Yes it was at least partially a bounce. But poll numbers bounce up because they are driven up by good things and the fact is, if the election were held tomorrow, Bush would win and Kerry would lose, and that hasn't been true for months.
Kerry did get polished up a bit from the podium, particularly when he was fricasseed into Chicken a la Zell on Wednesday night. By all means, we should keep the heat on Kerry for his actual record in politics and keep the choice in voter's minds honest and clear. But the key to the president's reelection remains electing him, not defeating someone else. Besides, there is little mayhem Republicans can inflict on Kerry that his hapless, one-trick campaign hasn't already done to itself. Gallons of deadly Dukakis loser-juice run deep in the Massachusetts senator's political veins, and the only way Kerry can take back this campaign now is if President Bush surrenders it. Kerry, like all challengers, will have a last minute comeback and a late surge. The final race will be close. But the best, and noblest, path to a Bush victory was shown last week in New York City.
When we forcefully advocate the president's leadership and his just war for our freedom, we win. When we retreat from the big question of the election and abandon our arguments for the value of his presidency in order to belittle his already small opponent, we lose.
Mike Murphy is a political and media consultant.