Turning a Phrase, Not a Corner

Just as the Democratic Convention was wrapping up in Boston, President Bush's handlers announced that he'd be hitting the campaign trail with an amped-up stump speech.

Bush's new speech would have two new phrases – "turning the corner" and "results matter." He'd say America is "turning the corner" on the economy and the Iraq War. And he'd show how he had gotten things done as president, pointing out that Kerry hadn't done much as Senator, and conclude with "results matter."

One week later, Bush's speech hasn't transformed the campaign. At least not in the ways he wanted. Bush's catch-phrases have made headlines – mostly, when Kerry has used them to counterpunch against Bush.

When both candidates were campaigning a few blocks away from each other in Davenport, Iowa on August 4, Kerry joked that Bush could attend the Democrats' economic forum "if he were just willing to turn the corner." More seriously, in an address on Thursday at the UNITY 2004 Journalists of Color Conference in Washington, D.C., Kerry declared: "Just saying we're turning the corner on the war, on terror, on jobs, on opportunity, and on one America doesn't make it so."

Meanwhile, Bush and his handlers have yet to craft a stump speech that uses the "turning the corner" and "results matter" – or any other catch-phrases – to make a compelling case for his re-election.

For all the hype announcing his new stump speech, those two phrases only appear towards the middle of the remarks he delivered, virtually word-for-word, at rallies last weekend in the swing states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Reciting a litany of issues where he says he'll continue to "make progress" during a second term, Bush says: "We are turning the corner, and we're not turning back." He says this about "improving public schools," "giving Americans more choices about their health care," and – halfway through the speech – "creating jobs for America's workers," but not about several other issues that he mentions, including energy, the environment, and job training. As for "results matter," Bush only uses that phrase towards the end of the speech, about jobs, education, and the war on terrorism.

Why does Bush's speech bury the very points his spinners told the news media that he was going to make? The problem isn't Bush's rhetoric; it's his record.

Presidents in trouble tend to blame their speechwriters, and, if he continues to trail Kerry, he may fire some current staffers and hire some new ones. (Veteran Republican writer Peggy Noonan announced Thursday that she is taking a leave from her career as a pundit to help her party, adding that she doesn't think Bush needs her help.) But Bush already has a talented team of wordsmiths who rely on the short words and simple sentences that he is most comfortable using – and that make for the most effective oratory, anyway.

Instead, the problem is that Bush has presided over an economy where 1.8 million private-sector jobs have vanished, 3.7 million Americans have lost their health coverage, and wage increases have fallen behind the rising the cost of living. After rallying Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and defeating the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Bush led the nation into the war in Iraq without an exit strategy or even a plausible explanation.

Thus, he can't make the classic case for re-electing a president: The country is in better shape than when I took office, and I'll make things even better if you give me another four years. For all the simplicity that appeals to Bush and his media adviser Karen Hughes, slogans such as "We're turning the corner, and we're not turning back" can boomerang on Bush, just as they did this week. His opponents can ask "Why not turn back" to the country's condition before Bush took office – peace, prosperity, and a nation that was at least a little less polarized? And what are we turning the corner on? The problems Bush inherited? Or those he himself presided over, such as the growing federal deficit and rising unemployment?

These realities – and not rhetorical shortcomings – explain why Bush's new stump speech is so scattershot. Among other techniques, he tries:

Cultural populism: Bush begins by praising the places where he's campaigning – for the past week, they've mostly been in the Midwest – as "the heart and soul of the country." Then, he slyly suggests, "The other folks believe the heart and soul can be found in Hollywood. Soon, afterwards, he says, half in jest, that he should be reelected so that his wife, Laura Bush, can continue as First Lady – a subtle reminder that Teresa Heinz Kerry is foreign-born and can be caricatured as elitist.

Laundry lists: Then Bush segues into a list of the issues that he'd on if re-elected – education, health care, job training, and job creation. While he boasts later, that, unlike Kerry, he's achieved "results," the accomplishments he mentions are meager indeed – the controversial "No Child Left Behind" education law and prescription drug programs. But, just by mentioning a slue of domestic issues, Bush implies that he is in touch with working families' problems and hard at work on their behalf.

Not-so-subtle attacks: Having presented himself as a president who's trying to make life better for most Americans, Bush then proceeds to bash his opponents. During his discussion of health care, Bush emphasizes his efforts against what he calls "frivolous lawsuits that raise health care costs" – a not-so-subtle swipe at Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, a trial lawyer by profession. To clinch the point, he adds: "You cannot be pro-patient and pro-doctor and pro-trial lawyer at the same time. You have to choose. My opponent made his choice, and he put him on the ticket."

Scatter-shots against Kerry: While his attack against Edwards is cleverly worded, his criticisms of Kerry aren't coherent. Faced with the choice of branding Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal or an unprincipled waffler, a Washington insider or an ineffective back-bencher, Bush and his handlers choose "all of the above." Thus, he attacks Kerry as a backer of big government, as a straddler who has been on both sides of major issues, as "an experienced Washington, D.C.-type Senator," and also one with "few signature achievements."

Tax cuts for whom? When it comes to tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the very wealthy, Bush uses the same rhetorical techniques he's perfected for four years: confusing who gets most of the money. Instead of calling them "tax cuts," he calls them "tax relief." He equates taxation based on the ability to pay with social engineering or political favoritism, declaring: "We didn't pick winners or losers when it came to tax relief. We had a fair view that said, if you pay taxes, you ought to get relief." Listing the beneficiaries, he mentions everyone but those with the largest incomes, listing instead "families with children," "married couples," and "small businesses."

A "war president": When he finally turns to national security, Bush uses a similar technique: embedding the Iraq War in a series of more successful and less controversial endeavors. First, he mentions the 9/11 attacks, then the war in Afghanistan, then cooperation with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in pursuing terrorists, then Libya's "abandonment of the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction," and, only then, the Iraq War. Understandably, he takes pride in the ouster of Saddam, and, then, he rattles off a list of justifications for or benefits from the war. From Iraq, he segues into efforts to promote security here in the United States and a tribute to Americans' strength of character, as revealed by the response to the 9/11 attacks.

Intriguingly, Bush does not repeat a point that he made in a speech before the Democratic convention but has since stopped: that, while he is a "war president," he would prefer to be a "peace president." Writing in the Wall Street Journal's online edition, Noonan advised Bush to make this point, warning him that voters are concluding that he enjoys war too much. Now that she's on leave from her column and is available to help her fellow Republicans, Bush soon may be reading her words again – this time at podiums across the country.

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