50,000,000 Kerry Fans Can't Be Wrong Can They?

And other questions from the campaign trail

"The Kerrys ski at a spa the widow Heinz owns in Aspen, and they summer on Nantucket in a sprawling seaside 'cottage' on Hurlbert Avenue, which is so well-appointed that at a recent fundraiser, they imported porta-toilets onto the front lawn so the donors wouldn't use the inside bathrooms."

Democratic partisans and Bush haters of every stripe will rightly retort that Kerry's sins are far less egregious and consequential than Bush's, but that's not the point. Karl Rove saw the numbers of "nontraditional voters" giving money to Dean at the start, and he has no doubt noticed the record numbers turning out for primaries and caucuses. He's not stupid. The eventual Republican endgame will be to stifle public interest in the whole mess and depress the number of voters that turns out in November. Between the lines the Bush campaign will be saying: You may or may not like us. Okay. But John Kerry--you think John Kerry is something new under the sun? Come on. He's business as usual and this whole process is business as usual. We hope you're on board with us, but don't kid yourself. You can have us or someone else like us. Just remember that a vote for John Kerry means your son will grow up to marry the boy next door.

In short, the White House will labor to present Kerry as just another self-seeking political pro. There's no saying how damaging it will prove; much depends on the tenor and temperature of Kerry's campaign. But it's impossible to think the rap won't stick in some measure--it is, after all, true. And the more it adheres to Kerry, the closer the election will come to a pure up-or-down referendum on Bush.

But even if the White House succeeds in defining the race on those terms (a dicey proposition), there is no assurance at all that George W. Bush will be able to win a referendum on George W. Bush.

III. Bush vs. Bush

No matter how low the approval ratings go, a vast number of anti-Bush folk remain absolutely, fatalistically convinced the White House will find a way to pull out the election. Or steal it, as they did last time. One can't fault them for thinking that this is the most cutthroat bunch of political operators to soil the Oval Office rugs in a long time. On the popular question of whether there will be an October Surprise--a sudden crisis or breakthrough of apparently spontaneous origin that is in fact politically manipulated--the smart-money answer is plain: Only if they can arrange one. Osama naturally looms largest. There are those who believe US intelligence already has a pretty good idea of his whereabouts and is keeping one eye on his movements and the other on the calendar, and they are not just the usual paranoid crowd. This is mainstream cocktail party chatter now. One way of expressing Bush's present crisis is to say that a lot of average people seem prepared to believe he'd do just about anything to stay in power.

But wanting an October coup, finding one, and executing it are three distinctly different things. Popular liberal mythology has visited on Bush and Rove an almost supernatural air of invincibility. It's silly. If Karl Rove is really the Great Gazoo of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, able to bend political reality to his will by sheer force of mind, then tell me again how his boss got in trouble in the first place. The website Pollkatz maintains a tracking chart of Bush's approval ratings (see illustration page 22). The tale they tell is one of steady erosion punctuated by three events that buoyed Bush's numbers: 9/11, the start of the Iraq war, and the capture of Saddam. But the bang afforded by Bush's triumphs and crises has diminished with each succeeding wave. For a White House that is said to be "all politics all the time," and run by a genius to boot, it's a paltry record.

Last Sunday's Meet the Press showed how quickly and profoundly the earth has moved under Bush's feet. Just a couple of weeks ago, charges that Bush was a Vietnam-era deserter from his National Guard unit were quite beyond the pale. Shortly after Michael Moore re-aired the claim at a Wesley Clark rally, I saw Peter Jennings inform Clark that the allegations were baseless en route to asking how the candidate could fail to repudiate them. On Sunday, one of the pooh-bahs of broadcast news, Tim Russert, was sitting in the Oval Office grilling Bush about it. Near the end, Russert held up a chart with data on unemployment (up 33 percent under Bush), economic contraction (2.2 million jobs lost), and the federal deficit ($521 billion next year alone), and said to the president of the United States, in essence, What the fuck?

Weighed against the servility of most press interactions with Bush, Russert's brusqueness came as a shock--but not as great a shock as W's own demeanor. Bush looked disconsolate and distracted. ("Was he medicated?" a friend called to ask afterward. "Is he into the old man's Halcion?") He barely bothered parrying the National Guard question--"I put in my time, proudly so," he croaked--and his famous pugnacity was nowhere in evidence. If the interview had aired in prime time and not on Sunday morning, it might have dropped another 5 to 10 points from his approval rating all by itself. If Bush ever comes this close to his own version of The Scream when people are actually watching, it's big trouble.

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