President Bush stands in an unenviable position, in fact just about where four other postwar presidents who were seeking another term stood in the last days before the election. Three were defeated.
Most Americans do not believe Bush deserves to be president any longer, if that is a fair interpretation of poor approval ratings. One poll this week gave him a cumulative job approval rating of 47 percent, though he polls a little higher in some areas, such as the war on terrorism, and much lower in others, mainly dealing with economic problems.
George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford could not survive the failure of confidence. Only Harry Truman in 1948 did, in the biggest political upset of the century. Down in the Gallup Poll and his party splintered by liberal and conservative factions that put their own candidates on the ballot, Truman fought back. He barnstormed the country, largely ignoring his Republican opponent, Gov. Tom Dewey, but attacking the “do nothing” Republican Congress.
Bush I, Carter and Ford lost but you would have to say that they lost with a fair degree of honor. They ran out the string until election day complimenting their own records, promising even better times and taking a few digs at their opponent’s records in public life.
Bush Junior is following the Truman model, or at least adopting his determination. But Truman’s tough language never blurred the facts. He never engaged in massive distortions about what Dewey had done or said or, for that matter, what the Republican Congress had done. No presidential campaign of modern times, not even Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks campaign of 1972, has resorted to the level of mischief that has marked the campaign of Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Lee Atwater introduced the doctrine that winning is so important that it justifies whatever needs to be done to produce the result. The Bush-Cheney campaign is the culmination of that idea.
Karl Rove deserves credit for figuring out the only way Bush could win when most of the country had lost confidence in his leadership. The president’s single strength was the impression that he was a firm and decisive commander in chief, even if he was wrong in his decisions about the war and even if he had run the economy into the ground. The opponent would need to be so wishy-washy and cowardly that people worried about how he would confront the adversities that Bush and Cheney said were sure to come at the hands of terrorists. If Wes Clark or anyone else had won the Democratic nomination, the strategy would be the same.
It required not only the repetition of the words like wishy-washy but distorting the voting records and old speeches and twisting small phrases into meanings the precise opposite of what Kerry had said, all to the end of portraying the Democrat as a weak man who vacillated at every obstacle. In Cheney’s case, it involved stackable lies about the records of Kerry and Sen. John Edwards.
It began with convincing falsehoods about Kerry’s votes on the war resolution and on his votes on weapons and the $87 billion supplemental war appropriation in 2003. They said he voted to go to war but against money to support the troops. Of course, he did vote for the $67 billion to support troops and $20 billion in loans for reconstructing Iraq, but Bush threatened to veto the version Kerry supported — a version, by the way, that a vast majority of Americans would have preferred — and Republicans fell into line and voted out the Bush plan, which was far costlier to the American taxpayer.
In the last three weeks, Bush and Cheney came up almost daily with a fresh distortion of Kerry’s words, plucking out a half-dozen words from a lengthy dissertation on security to suggest that Kerry would not stand up to terrorists, exactly opposite of what he had said.
The media has acted occasionally as a truth squad but the corrections of the record are always buried and neutered by the impulse to demonstrate balance by finding an equal number of problems with the other side when the errors were of entirely different magnitudes. The Washington Post in late August ran a long and illuminating list of Kerry quotes alongside the twisted versions by Bush and Cheney, but they came so fast afterward that it was pointless to try to keep up.
When this race is over, the country needs a serious debate about whether the Atwater doctrine serves the democracy. It is a problem at least as serious as campaign money. Some have suggested a truth-in-elections commission to sort out and call attention to lies and distortions, which at least one state employs. Though it might act as some restraint, the simple tide of untruths in this campaign makes that instantly impractical.
Bush told a fawning Fox News interviewer Monday that he knew for an absolute dead certainty that he would be re-elected. A man who says that is not going to be deterred by a truth commission.