I have often argued that the Bush campaign’s biggest mistake was to go out so hard and so fast in their effort to destroy John Kerry. These messages wore out their welcome way before the election really kicked into high gear and the lowering of the public’s expectations for Kerry massively backfired during the debates when the two men stood side by side.
The plan to destroy John Kerry’s public persona from the outset of this campaign was not a strategy hatched in the opening moments of the general election. It goes all the way back to South Carolina during the 2000 Republican primary. It was then and there that the Bush team first learned about the effectiveness of a sickeningly negative assault on a better man. They sought to dismantle John McCain. They attacked his patriotism and his military record. When McCain called Bush on this tactic, Bush insisted that those who attacked McCain did not speak for him, that he honored his service, and that he would not allow his own trustworthiness or character his questioned.
Only this time, the Bush team went too far. A week or two of these tactics is one thing. An entire campaign is something else entirely.
And it simply was not their only option.
These elections are almost always a referendum on the incumbent and well they should be. Why did Bush fail to run on a record he believes in? The polls have consistently indicated that W has a strong base of supporters who are voting primarily for him and not primarily against John Kerry. This was a growth opportunity turned into a missed one.
Let me give you an example.
A few days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush decided that he would throw out the first pitch of the World Series game being hosted at Yankee Stadium, a metaphoric stones throw from the still burning embers of ground zero. Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter joked with the President that he had better not throw a bouncer. He didn’t. Wearing a jacket over a bullet-proof vest and standing atop the pitchers mound at what at that moment was the center of the American soul, President Bush hurled a strike.
It was an important image at the time. It made New Yorkers and Americans feel like we could take the first steps forward.
Why isn’t that moment, that spirit, part of the Bush campaign? Where was that guy during the debates? Who is this whining, finger-pointing and comparitively miniscule character who has replaced him along the campaign trail?
Maybe that Bush was abandoned for the same reason (one I can’t quite explain) that the President chose to squander the unity within America and the support of hands outstretched by our allies around the world.
Look, I know politics is a dirty business. And I laugh every time one of the sides accuses the other of being willing to say or do anything to get elected. That’s the point, after all. But I don’t understand why the insiders behind the Bush effort were so intent on running a campaign that mirrored the worst of his tenure instead of the best.