NEW YORK CITY -- Get ready to meet the candidate of change -- he's George W. Bush. Counterintuitive? Yes. Impossible? No. If Washington politicians sometimes pull off the feat of running against Washington, there is no reason an incumbent president can't run on providing a new direction for the country.
As the Republican Convention gets under way here, top Bush campaign officials and Republican strategists think John Kerry has left Bush a huge strategic opening with his biography-obsessed convention and his cautious acceptance speech in Boston. Kerry so far has failed to tap into the widespread sentiment for change in the country. Bush is prepared to fill the breach, portraying himself as the forward-looking, substantive candidate pushing for change.
It wouldn't be the first time Bush has adjusted to co-opt forces in a campaign seemingly working against him. In 2000, when John McCain's message of reform took off in the Republican primaries, Bush became the "reformer with results." Now, with most people in polls saying they want something new, Bush is ready to give them something new.
"The president is providing a new direction," says a Bush campaign official. "He's making unbelievable reforms to how Washington works. He realizes the federal government is not currently equipped to deal with the new challenges of the 21st century." This will be a major theme of Bush's crucial acceptance speech. Says another Bush campaign official: "He's an agent of change, and he's been a strong advocate of conservative reform across the board."
This isn't just marketing. Bush campaign officials point to his first-term updating of anti-terror laws, his new foreign-policy doctrine, his reform of the military, his creation of a department of homeland security, his tax cuts, his steps toward modernizing Medicare and his education reform. His second-term agenda will include consolidating all those moves, while also reforming intelligence, moving toward a market-based health care system, modernizing Social Security and pushing tort reform.
Polls show voters think the country is on the wrong track and needs a new direction. That is always a trouble sign for an incumbent, but Bush might be able to make some of that sentiment work in his favor. "Just because you think the country is headed on the wrong track doesn't necessarily mean that you disagree with Bush," says one Republican strategist. "The most interesting point about his convention speech will be how he lays out the direction of the future and how he argues he's the guy who generates change and reform."