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Bush's 'Exit Ramp' or Four More Years?

By Robert Parry
November 1, 2004

The choice for the American voters on Nov. 2 boils down to whether they want to take the electoral exit ramp now before them – and get a new driver behind the wheel – or stay on the danger-strewn highway with the same driver for another four years.

Since early in the campaign, George W. Bush’s political advisers have grasped the itchiness many Americans feel about staying with Bush down what could be a very dark road. That explains why Bush has engaged in what even Republican strategists describe as an unusual strategy of running as an insurgent candidate while serving as the incumbent.

So, rather than tout his own record, Bush mostly has gone on the offensive against John Kerry’s record, with the goal of disqualifying the Massachusetts senator as an option to millions of voters. Typical was Bush’s Oct. 31 speech in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Bush rallied the crowd by heavily criticizing Kerry, saying voters cannot risk the nation’s economy and security on the Massachusetts senator,” wrote the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. [Nov. 1, 2004]

In his stump speeches, Bush has repeated the refrain that Kerry “can run, but he can’t hide” from his Senate voting record. In another applause line, Bush says Kerry has entered “the flip-flop hall of fame.” Vice President Dick Cheney reinforces the message by accusing Kerry of indecision and by praising Bush’s decisive leadership.

Future Plans

Besides damaging Kerry, the Bush-Cheney attack strategy has helped cloak their absence of a persuasive defense for the administration’s own record over the past four years. Bush has blamed lackluster economic and other data mostly on challenges he encountered – from the bursting of the Internet bubble to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Bush also has been sketchy about his program for the future, beyond promising that a second Bush term will finish up work started in the past four years.

By contrast, challenger Kerry generally has employed a less negative tone, a reversal from the normal expectation that a challenger attacks and an incumbent defends. Though Kerry has sharpened his criticism of Bush in recent weeks, the Democrat has stressed a variety of policy initiatives, such as: reducing health care costs, protecting American jobs, strengthening environmental protections, reversing federal budget deficits, and enlisting more international cooperation in both the Iraq War and the fight against terrorism.

But Kerry’s failure to attack Bush more aggressively earlier may have been a serious mistake for his campaign. At the Democratic National Convention, for instance, the keynote address by Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama didn’t include a single criticism of Bush. In some other Democratic convention speeches, Kerry’s operatives even deleted negative references to Bush.

The goal apparently was to introduce Kerry to American voters in a positive light by stressing his combat heroism in the Vietnam War. But the strategy fell flat. The convention did little to make the case for why Bush should be defeated and it opened Kerry’s war record to withering criticism from pro-Bush veterans. According to some polls, the Democratic convention registered either a zero or a negative bounce, unheard of in modern American politics.

Plus, if the Kerry campaign hoped to get some reciprocity from the Republicans, the Democratic strategy misfired again. At the Republican National Convention, the keynote speaker, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, launched an all-out assault on Kerry, making twice as many negative comments about the Democratic nominee as Miller made positive comments about Bush.

In effect, the Republicans were making the case to voters that under no circumstance should they consider Kerry as an alternative for president. Around the convention hall, Republican delegates waved flip-flops at every mention of Kerry’s name and sported “purple heart” band-aids to mock the severity of Kerry’s war wounds.

The Bush-Cheney convention strategy proved successful, driving up Kerry’s negatives and giving Bush about a 10 percentage-point bump in some polls.

Questions Ahead

The closest the nation came to focusing on future issues during Campaign 2004 was in the three presidential debates – especially the second which had questions posed by everyday citizens.

Judged to have lost all three encounters, however, Bush watched his lead shrink. After the debates, Bush then recovered by returning to the stump and renewing his harsh attacks on Kerry. This time, Kerry responded with his own tough critiques of Bush, giving the final weeks of the campaign a testy feel as the candidates traded barbs and the race stayed close.

Yet, while Bush’s supporters chant “four more years,” the relatively narrow focus of the campaign – around the Iraq War and the economy – has meant that little thought has been given to what those next four years might look like. Several little-debated issues that could shape a Bush second term include:

--Heightened government secrecy. One of the first acts of Bush’s first term was to delay the release of documents from his father’s years as vice president and president. Bush followed that with a post-Sept. 11 edict allowing ex-presidents and their surviving family members to block release of documents far into the future. With a Bush second term, substantial parts of recent American history would likely remain locked away from public scrutiny. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s ‘Broken Toys’”]

--More constraints on civil liberties. As president, Bush asserted extraordinary authority to jail indefinitely people whom he deems “enemy combatants” and to waive legal restrictions on torture. Writing about the Bush torture opinion, the Wall Street Journal quoted a military lawyer who termed the president’s claim of nearly unlimited authority over torture as an assertion of “presidential power at its absolute apex.” [WSJ, June 7, 2004] In a second term, Bush is not likely to retreat much from his royal view of the presidency. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s ‘Apex’ of Unlimited Power.”]

--Greater intolerance of dissent at home. One of the hallmarks of the pre-war debate about Iraq was the marginalizing of dissidents who questioned the evidence about weapons of mass destruction or challenged Bush’s strategy of unilateral, preemptive military attacks. Preemptive war always had a domestic corollary of silencing critics – and that trend would likely grow in a second Bush term. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics of Preemption.”]

--The so-called “reality-based community” under increasing pressure. Bush and Cheney have made clear that they regard reality as a malleable commodity that can be shaped to support desired policies. Rather than facts informing policy, they have reversed the process: reaching their conclusions first and then assembling their case from information that is often dubious or exaggerated. Author Ron Suskind reported that in a White House interview, one senior Bush adviser mocked him as being part of “what we call the reality-based community,” and declared that “when we act, we create our own reality.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush: Beyond Reason.”]

--Continued opposition to international global warming initiatives such as the Kyoto treaty. Bush has shown no inclination to reengage the rest of the world in a coordinated strategy for reducing carbon emissions even as more and more scientific evidence shows that global warming is becoming a severe threat to the planet’s future. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Great Debate – With Himself.”]

So, as the Nov. 2 electoral exit ramp looms, the American voters must sort through a presidential campaign that has offered only a limited debate of the pressing issues before the nation. Still, the voters have just one major question left: Is it time to pull off the highway and put a new president behind the wheel -- or is it wiser to let George W. Bush keep the pedal to the metal, with the next exit four years down the highway?


Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has written a new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. It can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com.

 

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