The New York Times reports that democrats, relying on polls showing public approval numbers for President Bush dropping, are making opposition to Bush the main focus of their campaigns.
Mr. Bush’s image this fall is being invoked by Democrats as a proxy for Americans who want change in Washington; who oppose the war in Iraq; who think Mr. Bush has not done enough to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks; or who are angry with changes Mr. Bush has pressed in Medicare.
“It’s not just photos,” said John Lapp, who runs the Democratic campaign committee’s independent advertising program. “It’s statements and actions and votes that show a pattern of people being with Bush.”
Steve Murphy, a consultant whose firm made the Iraq advertisement for Ms. Madrid of New Mexico, said: “The war is a dominant issue. For all these Republican candidates who are going through gyrations to distance themselves from Bush — well, if they support Bush on the war, there is nothing more illustrative of the fact that they are in bed with Bush.”
Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat leading his party’s campaign to take back the Senate, said: “In 2004, people were still happy with Bush’s course in Iraq. Now they are not.”
Peggy Noonan, in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, explained why Bush-hatred just isn’t enough.
Pundits and historians call Mr. Bush polarizing — and he is, but in some unusual ways. For one thing, he’s not trying to polarize. He is not saying, “My team is for less government, your team is for more — my team, stand with me!”
Mr. Bush has muddied what his team stands for. He has made it all come down to him — not to philosophy but to him and his certitudes.
What is polarizing about him is the response he elicits from Americans just by being himself. They have deep questions about him, even as he is vivid to them.
Americans don’t really know, deep down in their heads, whether this president, in his post-9/11 decisions, is a great man or a catastrophe, a visionary or wholly out of his depth.
What they increasingly sense is that he’s one thing or the other. And this is not a pleasant thing to sense. The stakes are so high. If you woke most Americans up at 3:00 in the morning and said, “Tell me, looking back, what would you have liked in an American president after 9/11?” most of them would answer, “I was just hoping for a good man who did moderately good things.” Who caught Osama, cleaned out Afghanistan, made it proof of the possibility of change and of the price to be paid by those who choose terror as a tactic. Not this historical drama queen, this good witch or bad.
The one thing I think America agrees on is that George Bush and his presidency have been enormously consequential. He has made decisions that will shape the future we’ll inhabit. It’s never “We must do this” with Mr. Bush. It’s always “the concentrated work of generations.” He doesn’t declare, he commits; and when you back him, you’re never making a discrete and specific decision, you’re always making a long-term investment.
This can be exhausting…
With all this polarity, this drama, this added layer Mr. Bush brings to a nation already worn by the daily demands of modern individual life, the political alternative, the Democrats, should roar in six weeks from now, right? And return us to normalcy?
Well, that’s not what I sense.
I like Democrats. I feel sympathy for the hungry and hapless, identify with aspirations, am deeply frustrated with Mr. Bush. More seriously, I believe we are at the start of a struggle for the survival of the West, and I know it is better for our country if both of its two major parties have equal responsibility in that struggle. Beyond that, let’s be frank. Bad days are coming, and we’re all going to have to get through them together, with two parties, arm in arm. It’s a big country.
But I feel the Democrats this year are making a mistake. They think it will be a cakewalk. A war going badly, immigration, high spending, a combination of sentimentality and dimness in foreign affairs — everyone in the world wants to be free, and in exactly the way we define freedom at dinner parties in McLean and Chevy Chase — and conservative thinkers and writers hopping mad and hoping to lose the House.
The Democrats’ mistake — ironically, in a year all about Mr. Bush — is obsessing on Mr. Bush. They’ve been sucker-punched by their own animosity.
“The Democrats now are incapable of answering a question on policy without mentioning Bush six times,” says pollster Kellyanne Conway. “What is your vision on Iraq? ‘Bush lied us into war.’ Health care? ‘Bush hasn’t a clue.’ They’re so obsessed with Bush it impedes them from crafting and communicating a vision all their own.” They heighten Bush by hating him.
One of the oldest clichés in politics is, “You can’t beat something with nothing.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. You have to have belief, and a program. You have to look away from the big foe and focus instead on the world and philosophy and programs you imagine.
Mr. Bush’s White House loves what the Democrats are doing. They want the focus on him. That’s why he’s out there talking, saying Look at me.
Because familiarity doesn’t only breed contempt, it can breed content. Because if you’re going to turn away from him, you’d better be turning toward a plan, and the Democrats don’t appear to have one.
Which leaves them unlikely to win leadership. And unworthy of it, too.
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