New York, N.Y.–I take Bush’s aides seriously when they say that the point of the convention was less to get a “bounce” in the polls–although they would like that, of course–than to lay the foundation for a successful fall campaign. President Bush’s speech Thursday night may not have been inspiring. But it methodically built on his strengths and shored him up where he has been weak.
For people with concerns about his swagger, or his bluntness, Bush needed to humanize himself by being self-deprecating–while also reminding people that they like his conviction. For people worried about his being inattentive to domestic policy, he had to lay out a domestic agenda–while also burnishing his national-security credentials.
But he did more than list domestic policies, as some commentators are saying. He also provided a framework within which Americans could make sense of those policies. Bush understood, better than most pundits, that his problem on the economy is not captured by a “jobs number” or the price of oil. What worries people is the insecurity that has attended economic change. Bush argued that our response to that insecurity should neither be a populist attempt to try to stop change nor a liberal attempt to expand government to provide security. Rather, it should be an expansion of freedom that allows people to provide security for themselves. Bush’s program is fairly ideological: Personal accounts for Social Security trump money for community colleges in any rational calculation of these things. But it was presented in non-ideological terms. (Bush’s line about how personal accounts will be owned and thus impossible to take away is a surely deliberate echo of FDR’s comment about how no politician would ever be able to get rid of Social Security.) The president’s accomplishment here should not be underestimated.
Bush avoided doing anything rash on tax reform, merely committing himself to simplification of the code. Permanently abolishing the estate tax would be enough to achieve that: I’ve been told that it makes up about 5 percent of the code, and its interaction with other parts of the code makes up another 5 percent. For that matter, making all the tax cuts permanent, and thus imparting stability to it over time, would simplify the code. So would moving away from having multiple layers of taxation for savings and investment. Here Bush just needs to do what he’s already done, only better.
The foreign-policy section of his speech was also strong. Before the convention, I would have said that Republicans needed to take on the WMD mess head-on. But without doing that, Bush managed to make the case for the Iraq war better than anyone else at the convention but John McCain. He made both the still-defensible case about the long-term threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and the case for a “forward strategy of freedom” in the Mideast. And he hit Senator Kerry on his indefensible vote against $87 billion for the post-Saddam effort in Iraq. That vote was Howard Dean’s gift to the Republican party, and it cannot be mentioned enough for Bush’s purposes.
The convention may not give Bush a lead he can hold. The lead may switch back and forth, as in 2000. But what can be ruled out is a scenario in which the incumbent trails the challenger through the fall. That is now less likely than a sustained Bush lead. And Kerry finds himself in a trap. If he talks about domestic issues, he leaves the charges about his war record and his antiwar record unanswered–and disappoints his base. If he responds to those charges, he is stuck in the past–and more negative than the president acceptance speech was. Thursday night’s rally was a sign that Kerry is being led by his followers. Their panic is overwrought, but it could be self-fulfilling. This is what it means to be in a trap, a trap that got tighter Thursday night.