A COUPLE OF weeks ago, in assessing the now all-but-certain nomination of John Kerry, I wrote, "Bush would cream Kerry."
I was wrong. Sort of. Come next January, Kerry will be the new president of the United States.
My mistake was in focusing on Bush's ability to run, successfully, against John Kerry. That hasn't changed. But what I left out of the equation is that Bush must also run against himself. As we've seen these past few weeks, when Bush confronts himself, it's his prospects for a second term that lose.
Bush's unprecedented appearance on Meet the Press Feb. 8 was a revelation to the political junkies who watch Sunday-morning TV—but it shouldn't have been. We now understand why this president avoids news conferences that aren't scripted, or any other environment in which hard questions might be asked. Put simply, he can't answer them.
BUSH'S record leaves him vulnerable on countless fronts: job losses, health care, environmental rapaciousness and other forms of corporate malfeasance, and, always, tax cuts and handouts for his wealthiest friends. But the steady drip, drip, drips that will undo this presidency are Iraq and 9/11—the very things that the White House was once certain would guarantee a second term.
On Meet the Press, not exactly the world's toughest format, Bush couldn't answer the question of why we invaded Iraq (and why thousands subsequently died) when there was no clear threat to U.S. security and when many other countries have vile leaders. All he could do was fall back, time and again, on "context" and the fact that "terrorists with airplanes attacked us."
This is remarkably thin gruel. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. But beyond being a lie in its own right, Bush's insistence on linking Iraq to 9/11 reminds us all that Osama bin Laden is still out there.
If Bush's definition of the situation is to be taken at face value, we'll be judging all of our future leaders by these same "wartime" standards. Nobody in this country is about to give politicians a free pass for the next 50 or 100 years. Maybe Bush doesn't think America can afford democracy any longer, but most of the rest of us haven't decided to set aside our Constitution or our common sense for a few generations just because Dick Cheney told us to.
IN THE immediate aftermath of 9/11, there is very little Bush did that any Democratic president would not have done. Where Bush has diverged is in the doctrine of pre-emptive attack, his grandiose visions of redrawing maps, and in manufacturing the case for an aggressive war almost unanimously opposed elsewhere. That war is subsequently proving a disaster for all but the stockholders of a few well-connected companies and some newly enriched Iraqi exiles.
All this was written about, endlessly, in the months leading up to the invasion. The huge number of Americans that opposed Bush's war were the first squalls in a steady drip, drip, drip that has eroded and is still eroding George Bush's stature.
On Feb. 9, we learned that the key prewar U.S. intelligence assessment of Iraq's WMD capability was filled with qualifiers and doubts in the classified version presented to Bush, White House officials, and the Republican-led Congress. But those doubts were all stripped out of the public version. Blame that on the CIA.
All this is reminiscent of nothing so much as Richard Nixon's presidency, in which figures like Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld cut their political teeth. The Watergate scandal was allowed to erode over a long period, eventually destroying Nixon because of his arrogance and that of the people around him. They couldn't admit when they were wrong. If anything, Dubya is even worse on this score. No "Checkers" speech here; he gets his orders straight from the Almighty himself.
THE BUSH THAT ran in 2000—confident, charming—would have an easy time with Kerry. But in using war as his excuse for everything from budgets running amok to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bush has set himself up for a John Kerry buzz saw. All Kerry needs do is be himself: a man who is not a boat rocker but does have a conscience, a man who took great risk and whose decisions in the thick of battle turned out to be heroic. Voters will then look back at the diminished, dissembling Dubya, loathed by many Americans and viewed with growing skepticism by many others.
Kerry is a wash—he neither inspires nor repulses. Even with all that money, Bush is primarily running against Bush. He'll lose.