Prom Night

Election '04

Remember that mission to Mars? Or the push to rid professional sports of steroids? Or the plan to urge newspapers to publish more positive stories? Or that scheme to encourage e-mail between grandparents and their grandchildren?

These were all initiatives that the Bush White House considered at one time or another to score political points. Earlier this year, George W. Bush announced his not-so-excellent Mars adventure (without saying how much it would cost or how it would be financed). But that bold proposal did not distract people from the where-are-those-WMDs controversy. So weeks later he left this visionary notion out of his State of the Union address. (I guess space travel didn't go over well with focus groups in swing states.) And in that address Bush claimed he was going to get tough on steroids in sports. This vow was met with a collective yawn, and since then he has adopted a just-say-who-cares approach to the matter. Back in 2001, the administration was – I kid you not – on the verge of proposing the e-mail idea and a make-newspapers-more-upbeat campaign when Osama bin Laden and his maniacal followers slammed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. So much for IMing with Granny.

It's worth recalling these past duds, because Bush officials have been teasing that Bush will use his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention on September 2 to show he is a man of vision. To prove that point (and, I suppose, to prove his vision extends beyond occupying a nation that posed no immediate threat to the United States), he will unveil a series of fresh initiatives. But what will he call for? A mission to Venus? Maybe privatized retirement accounts . . . for Iraqis?

Unless Bush advocates free gasoline for all, it won't matter – politically – what he proposes. He may promise additional tax cuts, but the electorate already knows he has a never-ending hard-on for tax cuts, and most if not all voters have decided for themselves whether this obsession is commendable or perverse. What programs can he offer that might change anyone's mind? Probably none. Leading conservatives are hoping that Bush will throw them a bone, because this election may well come down to each side's ability to rev up its supporters. Some political analysts in Washington have been pondering the possibility that there are no swing voters, that – statistically speaking – no likely voters are on the fence. (And just because you have an aunt who says she cannot make up her mind does not mean this analysis is wrong.) If these folks are right, Bush may have reason to toss out goodies to please the right (say, tax credits for home-schooling parents who adopt a baby that otherwise would have been aborted). But if his aim is to win over voters not in the saddle with him, Bush will have to do so not by proposing this or that new policy but by talking about the two messes he is stuck with: Iraq and the economy.

It is easy to predict the disingenuous lines he will peddle. Regarding Iraq, he will probably repeat the two fundamental justifications for the war that he often spouts on the campaign trail. He says, "I thought we were going to find [WMD] stockpiles; everybody did." And he notes that his "choice" was "either to trust the word of a madman or to defend the American people." Both assertions are bunk. Before the war, many experts questioned whether the Iraqis possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In 2000, Rolf Ekeus, who had been the head of the U.N. inspectors in Iraq, said he doubted any stockpiles existed. And in early 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saddam Hussein had no "significant capabilities with respect to weapons of mass destruction."

To defend the invasion and occupation, he will present that false invade-or-do-nothing choice. He could have backed the calls for more intrusive inspections. He could have engaged in military actions short of an outright invasion. But Bush likes his geopolitics without nuances, and that's how he'll present it to the Bush-happy delegates. He will hail the (unresolved) war in Iraq as proof he knows how to take on terrorists, even though the connection between Iraq and the al Qaeda threat was essentially nonexistent.

Concerning the economy, Bush would be advised to keep it short. He will do the usual rah-rah, maintain the economy has turned the corner and point to job growth in the past few months, claiming his tax cuts had something to do with that. He will likely not refer to the 2.5 million jobs lost on his watch. Nor will he explain that the 1 million or so new jobs created this year neither make up for those lost jobs nor keep pace with population growth. (To do the latter, the economy must create about 1.8 million jobs a year.) The morning after his speech, the latest jobs-creation numbers are scheduled to be released. Too much gushy talk about jobs on Thursday night could look foolish and ugly the morning after.

It is also easy to predict what Bush won't say beyond "I made a mistake." When it comes to terrorism, he won't mention Osama bin Laden. Unless, of course, the rat-bastard is in a tiger cage suspended from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden. And he won't talk about the $4.6 trillion deficit he is bequeathing the nation or about wages. He might be able to get away with misleading references to anemic jobs creation. But wages have been on decline since the end of last year and are now equal to levels from November 2001 – which means they are trailing inflation.

Bush's success at the GOP convention – which will highlight a few moderate Republicans, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, while keeping the die-hard and dominant conservatives like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in the dungeon – will probably depend less on what Bush says and more on how he says it. After launching a war now considered a mistake by a majority of voters, can Bush come across as if he knows what he's doing? With the economy sputtering along, can Bush – who most voters believe cares more about corporations than average people – persuade people he understands their needs and is fighting for them? He'll talk tough on terrorism and try to sound caring on domestic matters. Maybe he'll blast Kerry; maybe he'll try to juice up his own admirers. But in the past year, his speeches have tended to be flops. His effort last September to revive popular support for the war by delivering an Oval Office address was deemed a failure – even by supporters of his war. His most recent State of the Union speech fizzled. When he again tried in May to whip up popular support for the Iraq War with a speech – this time at the Army War College – that, too, was a bust. He hasn't had a good rhetorical outing since his "Axis of Evil" State of the Union address in 2002. And see where that got him?

New initiatives won't do the trick. Bush will stay with the old lines – or lies – that have gotten him this far and dress them up pretty for his big night out.

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