The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Monday, October 04, 2004

Bush Errs in Ceding The Future

Bush errs in ceding the future

By Thomas Oliphant, Boston Globe Columnist October 3, 2004

CORAL GABLES, Fla. BEHIND THE theatrics, the style points, and the appearances lies the key to the first Bush-Kerry debate, and therefore the key to the others still to come: the future. Yes, the president was petulant. Yes, he even delivered an Al Gore-style sigh. Yes, he was tongue-tied and repeated himself all evening as he gradually ran out of mental and physical gas against a more forceful John Kerry.

The White House is already hard at work making sure those off-putting displays of presidential arrogance are not seen again. Those kinds of atmospheric mistakes are the easiest to fix.

What will be harder to fix is Bush's campaign preoccupation with Kerry and his difficulty projecting ahead. The result is that he is at risk of not only arguing that the present is satisfactory but of leaving the issue of the future blank.
The weakness showed in the debate on foreign policy, with Bush failing to capitalize on his strongest suit; it will be even more obvious as the debates turn to domestic policy subjects.

Consider, for example, homeland security, where inadequacy is the order of the day more than three years after the 9/11 attacks.

"We're doing everything we can at home," said Bush, taking the odd position of satisfaction in an area where dissatisfaction is the wise policy, but also revealing the complete absence of any plans to improve domestic preparedness.
Kerry offered a completely opposite approach -- dissatisfaction plus a plan. The government, he said, is cutting aid to state and local governments for the hiring of police officers and firefighters (the first responders of antiterrorism) at the same time it is sending a half-billion dollars to Iraq for the same purposes.
When Bush celebrated the reformation of the FBI into primarily a counter-terrorism agency, Kerry was ready to wonder why a lack of staff has produced a backlog of 100,000 hours of covert wiretaps of potential terrorists.

So much for the present, where Kerry put Bush on the defensive in an area where he is supposed to be dominant. For the future, Kerry could not have been more detailed -- a doubling of Special Forces personnel for covert operations abroad, an acceleration of the shoring up of bridges and tunnels, a doubling of the inspection rates of ship containers, tougher protections at chemical and nuclear power plants, and a tripling of the pace of securing "loose" weapons of the former Soviet Union.

Bush literally had nothing to say about the homeland security future, save a grumpy line about how much all of Kerry's ideas were going to cost, which only gave the senator a chance to note that the president had preferred a tax cut for wealthy individuals over funds for fighting terrorism.

The same thing happened on Iraq. Bush is transfixed by a conviction that Kerry's positions on the war cannot be arranged in a manner that makes sense. The shouting match over flip-flopping has entertained the media for months, but it was always vulnerable to a high-profile moment like the first debate. As Kerry put it, it is one thing to make mistakes articulating your views on the conflict, but quite another to make policy mistakes and then be too stubborn to face new realities.

That was a mere segue to the future, where Kerry was once again detailed and Bush was simply missing. Kerry was prepared with his agenda: summits to engage missing countries from Europe and Middle East, a new deal with a more active United Nations, isolation of extremists within the world of Islam, and a faster pace of security training for Iraqis.

By leaving the future to Kerry, Bush left himself stubbornly defending a status quo that any American with a television set can see is chaotic with no end in sight. Bush took refuge in his memorized refrains: It's hard work; and we're making progress; and Kerry is a threat because he sends mixed messages to friend and foe alike.

The danger in a Kerry fixation is that Kerry won't fit the Bush campaign portrait of him. The fact that Bush is silent about the future leaves him open to the senator's observation that Bush is only offering a four-word agenda -- more of the same.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with next month's election result. In the debate phase of a campaign, the first meeting is indeed pivotal, but its impact is either enhanced or dissipated by the ones that follow, including a John Edwards-Dick Cheney meeting on Tuesday whose profile just got raised considerably by what happened here.

We in the media love to do drama criticism, and we really get excited by attacks and counterattacks. However, voters often look for more, and Bush had better make sure that he does not talk about the economy and healthcare the way he just did about homeland security and Iraq.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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