George W. Bush
Evan Vucci  /  AP
President Bush gestures during a rally for the Republican party at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry, Ga., on Tuesday.
updated 11/1/2006 1:32:31 PM ET 2006-11-01T18:32:31

We know what George W. Bush thinks of Sen. John Kerry: not much. But doesn't the president have anything to say for himself? In fact he does, or should. He and his fellow Republicans have accomplishments to sell, or at least talk about. But they haven’t done it effectively, which is one reason why they are likely to get whacked at the polls next week.

In another year — maybe in another universe — the GOP and Bush might have highlighted, say, the rather successful (although budget-busting) program to provide prescription drugs through Medicare. They might have bragged more about the economy, which is not perfect by any means, but which in many ways has shaken off the effects of 9/11. Lower Manhattan, for example, is booming — under the leadership of a Republican mayor and governor.

There’s more: a free trade bill with Central America; an energy policy (yes the one Dick Cheney hatched in secret) that includes at least some support for alternative energy options. Chief Justice John Roberts draws praise for his knowledge and temperament, even from his philosophical foes. And Bush and his allies could tout the establishment of national educational standards. Are there problems with test-driven mania? Sure. Is the program under-funded? Yes. But is the intent a good one and have there been some positive results? Yes.

Then there is the “war on terror.” When even uber-neocon Richard Perle calls the administration “dysfunctional,” you know that Bush and the GOP are in deep trouble on that issue. Iraq is a shambles and Afghanistan is not far behind. But there are new legal and surveillance programs in place that are worth talking about; known bad guys have been apprehended; and there is at least some logic, and even moral worth, in Bush’s theory of spreading democracy. And while certainly all is not right with North Korea, the Pyongyang regime has agreed to return to the negotiating table.

Maybe it’s just that I am a member of what Rush Limbaugh calls the “drive-by media,” but I don’t hear much that is positive out of the White House and the GOP. It’s as if they don’t think it is worth trying to make their case. Maybe they think the mainstream media won’t listen, or report what they say. But that has never before stopped them from pursuing their own strategy.

Instead, they have run a national campaign largely in attack mode. You know the litany: the Democrats will raise your taxes. The Democrats will pack the courts with “activist” judges. A victory for the Democrats is a victory for the terrorists and Osama Bin Laden. The Democrats disrespect the traditional family.

Good vs. Evil
But the strategy of dividing the world into good and evil may now backfire on the president and his party. If you’re an unpopular president — and Bush is one of the most unpopular in the modern era — you don’t want a world divided that way. In that world, you end up on the wrong side of the equation.

Why has the GOP campaign been so negative? To some extent, Bush and Karl Rove are just reacting to the environment. Democrats, as the out party in the midst of a brutal and seemingly futile war, have been on the offensive from the start, deploying harsh, accusatory language they deem justified by the cost of the war in blood and treasure and by the way the war was sold and managed.

It’s the kind of sulfurous environment in which Bush and Rove think they prosper. They operate on a “base” theory of politics. They think that the way to win, especially in a low-turnout midterm, is with a Halloween strategy: scare the hell out of the GOP base to get them to the polls to forestall the Apocalypse.

To go “positive,” the president would have to talk more realistically, and in less divisive tones, about his policies. He would have to admit mistakes to gain leverage to express pride in the value of his aims. He finally did that to some degree in discussing the war in Iraq recently. The result, in the NBC and NEWSWEEK polls, was a slight uptick in his standing. It’s something that he should have done months ago, at least if he wanted to woo independent voters, who are looking less for ideological purity than signs of administrative competence.

Instead, Bush, Rove and GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman made a conscious decision not to speak to the country as a whole with national advertising — one way they could have gotten out a positive message. Rather, their theory was to “localize” each congressional race, letting GOP candidates fend for themselves.

But that strategy may backfire, too. As most candidates run away from the president, there is no one left to make a case for him. Most GOP advertising has been negative and “petty and personal” at that, according to the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Bush himself spends most of his time (and seems most comfortable being) on the attack, with Sen. John Kerry as his latest target in an effort to set up another Gunfight in the OK Corral.

I know what Bush thinks he is doing. It is standard doctrine that “attacks work.” But there is a corollary: they don’t work well, or at all, if your own “negatives” are sky high.

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