President Bush threw down the gauntlet on national security and domestic prosperity Thursday night, promising in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention to win the war on terrorism and to enact an ambitious program of domestic initiatives.
His Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, immediately picked it up, refusing any longer to accept Republican questioning of his highly decorated military career during the Vietnam War and declaring Bush “unfit to lead this nation.”
“Nothing will hold us back,” Bush said in a relaxed but determined hour-long address in New York that revived the keynote line of his 2000 stump speech: “I am running with a compassionate conservative philosophy.”
The president chose to open his speech — which was interrupted twice by protesters, who were quickly removed, and many more times by cheers and chants of “four more years” — not with comments on the struggle against terrorism, the dominant theme of the convention, but with an agenda of social and economic proposals.
Bush claimed credit for reforming the nation’s education system, saying his No Child Left Behind program had made it possible for children to make “sustained progress in reading and math.”
“America’s schools are getting better, and nothing will hold us back,” he said.
Likewise, he said that because of the congressional Medicare agreement, which he claimed credit for brokering, “soon every senior will be able to get prescription drug coverage, and nothing will hold us back.”
And because of his aggressive program of tax cuts early in his administration — “the largest tax relief in a generation,” he called it — “our economy is growing again and creating jobs, and nothing will hold us back.”
‘We will prevail’
Only after he had outlined how he hoped to improve Americans’ lives did the president turn his attention to the topic that dominated nearly all the speeches leading up to his: national security.
In a quiet voice, Bush told delegates and a worldwide television audience that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only four miles away had changed his life and his goals.
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“Since that day, I wake up every morning thinking about how to better protect our country,” the president said. “I will never relent in defending America — whatever it takes.”
He claimed credit for great progress toward that goal but said he needed another term to finish the job.
“We are staying on the offensive — striking terrorists abroad — so we do not have to face them here at home. And we are working to advance liberty in the broader Middle East, because freedom will bring a future of hope and the peace we all want.
“And we will prevail.”
Bush vs. Kerry
Bush maintained that he was the better choice to lead America in war than Kerry, whose name he mentioned only once.
“My opponent and I have different approaches,” Bush said. “I proposed, and the Congress overwhelmingly passed, $87 billion in funding needed by our troops doing battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. My opponent and his running mate voted against this money for bullets and fuel and vehicles and body armor.
“When asked to explain his vote, the senator said, ‘I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.’ Then he said he was ‘proud’ of that vote. Then, when pressed, he said it was a ‘complicated’ matter.
“There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat,” the president said sternly.
The passage was only a slightly less bruising version of the theme that coursed through Madison Square Garden from the moment the convention opened Monday: that Kerry, notwithstanding his multiple military honors and many years in congressional positions overseeing military affairs, was incapable of leading the military.
After a week of blistering attacks on his 20-year voting record in the Senate by Republicans and even a fellow Senate Democrat, Zell Miller of Georgia, Kerry finally accepted the advice of Democratic officials who had pleaded with him for weeks to answer the assault.Video: Kerry: Bush refused to serve
Kerry fought back hard, zeroing in on the military records of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in a midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio. Kerry said he had five words for America: “This is your wake-up call.” And he said he had four words for Bush: “All hat, no cattle.”
Kerry said Bush was “unfit to lead this nation” because of the war in Iraq and his record on jobs, health care and energy prices. As for Cheney, he said, “I’m going to leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified than two tours of duty.”
Kerry won five military medals in the Vietnam War, while Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard and Cheney avoided military service through a series of school and family deferments during the 1960s.
“For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander-in-chief,” Kerry said. “Well, here’s my answer: I’m not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq.”
Kerry’s vice presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said bluntly that the Republicans were liars.
“The problem is we have seen false — and I emphasize false — and negative attacks against Senator John Kerry, a great patriot,” he said.
“... They don’t have anything to say,” Edwards added. “They can’t talk about what has happened over the last four years.”
American Opportunity Zones
The campaign now becomes a two-month sprint to Election Day. Recent polls have shown Bush gaining ground on Kerry, and some show him moving into a small lead. The movement has come as Republicans have been more aggressive in their attacks on Kerry.
To blunt some of the inevitable backlash against both parties that will be created by the bitter debate over security, Bush chose to highlight an ambitious list of proposals that touched on nearly every aspect of domestic policy.
Bush promised to push through initiatives to further improve schools, create more jobs, cut taxes even more and ensure that every working man and woman would eventually have insurance and a secure retirement through personal retirement accounts that the “government can never take away.”
The cornerstone of his proposal was the creation of what he called American Opportunity Zones, where “we’ll provide tax relief and other incentives to attract new business and improve housing and job training to bring hope and work throughout all of America.”
The president said the administration would “double the number of people served by our principal job training program and increase funding for community colleges.” He promised to “lead a bipartisan effort to reform and simplify the federal tax code.” And he offered a tax credit “to encourage small businesses and their employees to set up health savings accounts.”Video: Bush’s economic plan
There was more. Bush promised:
- To fund “early intervention programs to help students at risk.” He said the nation’s education system would refocus attention on mathematics and science and would require a “rigorous exam before graduation.” He did not explain how he would compel local school boards, who control policies in local systems, to go along.
- To expand Pell grants for low- and middle-income families to “help more Americans start their career with a college diploma.”
- To create conditions allowing construction of “7 million more affordable homes in the next 10 years.”
- To provide low-income Americans with better access to health care. “In a new term, I will ensure [that] every poor county in America has a community or rural health center,” he said.
- To “support the protection of marriage against activist judges,” a reference to recent judicial rulings allowing gay and lesbian couples to claim the benefits of marriage. “I will continue to appoint federal judges who know the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law,” he said.
But Bush made no mention of a plan to raise the money to pay for any of those proposals, much less pay down the record budget deficits that have been created since he took office. Instead, he referred anyone wanting more details to his Web site.
War in Iraq
Not until almost two-thirds of the way through his address did Bush turn to the war on terrorism, the cornerstone of his re-election campaign. And even then, al-Qaida — the terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11 attacks, which continues to launch terrorist strikes in the Arab world and elsewhere — was noted lightly, almost as if in passing.
He did not mention Osama bin Laden — the al-Qaida leader whom U.S. forces have not apprehended three years after his strike on America — at all.
The president did trumpet a U.S. victory in the war in Iraq, but he did not address the continuing anti-U.S. violence there. Nor did he take note of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the possession of which by Saddam Hussein was the main argument the administration made in prosecuting the war.
Although no connection between Iraq and al-Qaida has been established, Bush said he was left with this set of options: “Do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country?
“Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time,” he declared.Video: Franks: ‘Supporting President Bush’
The detailed military case instead was laid out by Bush’s commander in the war in Iraq, retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who told delegates earlier in the evening that even though he was not a Republican, he was proud to vote for Bush.
“After almost four decades as a soldier, I’ve been independent — some would say very independent. But, here I stand tonight, endorsing George W. Bush to be the next president of the United States,” said Franks, who was seen by most Americans for the first time in a business suit instead of his Army fatigues.
Franks hammered home the Republicans’ favored theme that Bush was better prepared to lead the U.S. military in wartime than Kerry.
“The past three years have been hard years, a time of hard decisions and tough choices. I have looked into his eyes, and I have seen his character. I have seen courage and consistency — the courage to stand up to terrorists and the consistency necessary to beat them,” Franks said.
“I choose George W. Bush because he stands up for the American fighting man and woman and because he remembers our veterans.”
Bush the man
After Franks and New York Gov. George Pataki testified to Bush’s personal qualities, Bush returned to the question as he wrapped up his acceptance speech.
For one of the few times on a national stage, the president chose to answer critics of his style, a subject he usually prefers to dismiss by noting that he is, as friends and advisers put it, “comfortable in his own skin.” But broadsides at Bush’s intellect and demeanor in recent months, notably in the anti-Bush film “Fahrenheit 9/11,” have made his personality a point of discussion.Video: The duty to protect
“In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other,” Bush said. “Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.
“You may have noticed I have a few flaws, too. People sometimes have to correct my English — I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it.
“Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called ‘walking.’ Now and then, I come across as a little too blunt, and for that we can all thank the white-haired lady sitting right up there,” he said, gesturing at his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush.
The he turned serious again.
“Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America — and tonight, in this place, that dream is renewed.
“Now we go forward, grateful for our freedom, faithful to our cause and confident in the future of the greatest nation on Earth.”
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson