Democratic Candidates Debate in Milwaukee
Pool via Getty Images file
Debates will be key to this fall's election, Howard Fineman predicts. Here, Kerry speaks at a February primary debate in Milwaukee.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/16/2004 10:47:12 AM ET 2004-06-16T14:47:12
ANALYSIS

I’ve figured out what Sen. John Kerry needs to do to win the White House this November: wrap himself in Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak. If the Massachusetts senator can only stay out of sight for long enough, George W. Bush’s presidency may sink into the sands of Iraq.

Bush’s decision to go to Iraq is one of the most fateful calls any president has made — right up there with Harry Truman’s decision to send aid to Greece and Turkey, JFK’s secret agreement to pull American missiles out of Turkey to end the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Ronald Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev to begin winding down the Cold War. Because Bush’s decision was so important — and because it was so clearly his own to make — it’s central to the campaign. The questions of the season are and will remain: Was it worth so much blood and treasure? Did it make us safer?

The American public seems to be slowly but steadily coming to the conclusion that the answer is “no.” Trend lines matter in politics, and the trend of support for the war Bush launched in 2003 has been steadily declining for months, dragging the president’s job-approval rating with it. Even if things go reasonably well in Iraq after the official handover date of June 30 — a huge and probably unwarranted assumption — there are growing indications that most voters will see the original decision to go there as wrong, even if they accept the underlying, and still controversial, theory of pre-emptive war, and even if they don’t want a rapid pullout of U.S. troops.  

An accumulation of stories is taking its toll on Bush, and Kerry has nothing to do with them: the failure to find WMD in Iraq; the failure to establish a clear, convincing connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida; the failure to win substantial global support for the war; the failure to anticipate the costs and risks of rebuilding post-war Iraq; the failure to explain the roots and rationale for the abuses now being unearthed at Abu Ghraib.

Scandal is a key factor
The prison scandal is particularly important because it has the potential to hurt Bush with his core base, religious conservatives. Deal Hudson, a conservative Catholic writer and editor (and a close ally of Bush politico Karl Rove), told me that the horrific Abu Ghraib images — and the president’s reluctance to issue a heartfelt, personal apology for the behavior that produced them — have cost Bush among Catholic conservatives, many of whom were ambivalent about whether the war was justifiable under church law.

As he seeks to defend the war — arguing that the world is far safer with Saddam behind bars — Bush is operating in an increasingly hostile media environment. In journalism, as in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. After 9/11 there was an understandable willingness to cut him slack. That era of good feeling is gone, replaced by a media that feels burned, embarrassed and lied to — and doubly wary of the validity of good news coming from Iraq. There is some; but you won’t see it on TV.

Bush is further hampered by his inability to perform a crucial function of his office: the president as educator, schooling people in the reality of the world, so he can inspire and lead them in it. His almost desperate distaste for public discourse — his unease at answering questions, his famous smirk, his garbled syntax when not reading from a speech he’s carefully studied, edited and practiced — all these are no longer a cause for jokes; they seriously weaken his ability to make his political case.

One of the defining myths of our democracy is the notion of a president “growing” in office: the callow and underestimated fellow commanded by fate to rise to challenges he and we thought were beyond his capacity. A year before he was elected, Bush told me that Truman was his favorite president and model in foreign affairs. Truman, of course, is the patron saint of the underestimated — and the beau ideal of “growth in office.”

Has Bush grown?
Has Bush grown or changed in any way? He has become a good deal more sure-handed in  relationships with other world leaders. As I hear it (from a good European source), he dealt amicably and shrewdly with the G-8 leaders who gathered with him in Sea Island, Ga., the other week. He didn’t get what he wanted — NATO troops — but at least he was willing to ask; on other, non-Iraq issues, he was well-prepared and eager to cut deals.

Still, a prideful Bush has in essence answered “no” — vehemently — to the question of whether he’s changed or grown. With Bush there is only one gear: forward. In George W. Bush’s view, the act of looking back, of going over your mistakes to assess them and find other ways, is wimpy behavior.

In the months after 9/11, Americans admired Bush for his tough talk and stick-to-his-guns approach. Now they are at best ambivalent about it.

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Polls show that nine in 10 Republicans approve of his job performance — a level of partisan loyalty unmatched by any president. But the problem is that GOP voters aren’t a majority — and few voters outside the base are as supportive.

Bush’s campaign handlers had hoped that their TV spots would destroy Kerry. They haven’t. Bush is hoping to stress the economy and his domestic ideas — but most of the media is not going to be paying much attention.

As I see it, nothing much is going to matter in this campaign besides the TV debates — particularly the first one. If Kerry is going to win, the historical analogy to look at is 1980. The American people had had it up to here with Jimmy Carter. They were ready — desperate — for an alternative. They weren’t paying all that much attention to the former governor of California.

In the first debate, they finally looked at Ronald Reagan and decided that, while he certainly wasn’t perfect, he was safe enough — and that was all they needed. Carter’s brilliant polltaker, Pat Caddell, always said that the decision to debate Reagan cost his boss the election. Bush has no choice in the matter, I don’t think. He has to debate. Indeed, there will be three of them.

Yes, Bush will be underestimated once more. He always is. But if Kerry uncloaks himself as a minimally acceptable alternative, that may be the end of the matter. Watch for Kerry to throw off the Invisibility Cloak. When it happens — and I predict that it will be late in the campaign — it will be the  crucial moment.

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