January 25, 2004
The President Makes Danger His Campaign Theme
THERE was something familiar in the language that
Some listeners detected an allusion to a passage in "Amazing Grace," the hymn written by a slave trader turned minister and abolitionist, John Newton, after he survived an Atlantic storm:
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
Newton was referring in the last two lines to his salvation by God, a sentiment often echoed by the president. But in this speech, which served as the opening shot of Mr. Bush's 2004 campaign, the real message was there if listeners substituted the name "Bush" for "grace."
In short, Mr. Bush was holding himself out as the candidate who can best protect the nation from the evils of a post-9/11 world. Many Democrats call it the politics of fear; Republicans call it reality. Whatever the terminology, Mr. Bush has never before so bluntly told voters that the choice was between him and "the dangerous illusion" (read Democrats) that the threat had passed. Members of both parties say that running on national security may well guarantee Mr. Bush a second term. The White House is betting the election on it.
This is hardly news to the Democrats, who have never said the fear is not real. The candidacy of Gen.
The State of the Union speech took the strategy to new heights. "This was a remarkably candid acknowledgment of how much he intends to exploit the political value of his posture as the only effective warrior in the war against terror," said David M. Kennedy, a professor of history at Stanford. "It's a very strong card, and may well prove to be a trump card."
Historically, Americans have not voted out the commander in chief in the middle of war, which helps explain, Democrats say, why Mr. Bush used the grand stage of the State of the Union speech to underline the threat. ("And it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting and false.") It is also why the president traced the two-year narrative of a war on terror and then rebutted those who questioned, as he put it, "if America is really in a war."
Historians say that Franklin D. Roosevelt would probably not have won a third term in 1940 had there not been the crisis in Europe and Hitler's invasion of France that June. "There were forces on the right who didn't like anything about the New Deal, he had not brought about economic recovery and a lot of people thought he had too much power," Mr. Kennedy said. "There's very little question he owes his third term, and his fourth as well, to the international crisis."
Similarly, in the Civil War election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln survived a challenge by George B. McClellan, the Democratic nominee and the general Lincoln had fired the year before. But it might have been otherwise had not General Sherman captured Atlanta two months before the election, turning Lincoln's fortunes around after a summer of devastating casualties. "Lincoln was elected on a tide of military success," said James M. McPherson, the Civil War historian. "But Lincoln and everybody else acknowledged that if the election had been held in August, it would have gone the other way."
Of course, unpopular wars have driven some presidents from office, like Lyndon B. Johnson, who chose not to run for re-election in 1968 because of his vulnerabilities over Vietnam. Harry S. Truman was so unpopular in 1952 because of the stalemate in Korea that he might not have won his party's nomination.
It is no surprise that the biggest fear of the current White House, short of another terrorist attack, is that Iraq will implode before the election. Barring that, political analysts say Mr. Bush is wise to wield his most powerful advantage against the opposition. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted just before the State of the Union, 68 percent, including majorities of both Democrats and independents, gave Mr. Bush high marks for the campaign against terrorism.
So it is in Mr. Bush's interest to talk about the threat, just as it is in his interest to warn, as he did on Tuesday, that terrorists are still plotting against America. "Just think about the political calculation," said Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations. "You don't want to say, 'thanks to me, you're safe now,' and then tomorrow there's no Cleveland, Ohio."
People close to Mr. Bush reject the notion of a "political calculation," as Mr. Mead put it, and say the president is in fact haunted by the specter of Sept. 11 and the fears of a replay on his watch. Mr. Bush still begins each day with the daily "threat assessment," a compilation of what intelligence and law enforcement agencies pick up about potential terrorist activity. Aides say that it is a disturbing look at the nation's vulnerabilities, and that it has had a powerful effect on the president's psyche.
But no one at the White House denies that pushing the president's antiterrorism policy is good politics. Notably, none of the Democrats have accused Mr. Bush of exaggerating the vulnerability of the United States. "In all the opposition, one thing you're not hearing is, 'The boy is crying wolf,' " Mr. Mead said.
The problem for the challengers, Democrats themselves say, is no presidential candidate has effectively challenged Mr. Bush on security.
"You have to say how you're going to protect America, not just what Bush does wrong," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who has criticized the administration for not spending more on domestic security. "I don't think most Americans are totally satisfied with the Bush fight against terrorism, but they certainly prefer it to a weaker or nonexistent one."
Polls show that Mr. Bush is vulnerable to Democrats on domestic issues; 51 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy, according to the New York Times/CBS News poll. The economy was the No. 1 issue that people wanted to hear the candidates discuss.
But David Winston, a Republican pollster, said that running on national security made sense. During the State of the Union, he conducted a focus group of 30 independent voters, who were instructed to rate parts of the speech. The line that won the best response - aside from Mr. Bush's praise of the troops - was the president's vow that the United States will never seek "a permission slip'' to defend its security.
"It was the home-run line,'' Mr. Winston said.