George W. Bush's challenge

Posted: Aug 06, 2004 12:00 AM

George W. Bush has consistently done the right things during his term in office. Where he has had less success is in saying the right things at the right time.

 During his first year in office, but before 9-11, I wrote a column urging that he make more televised speeches. He hadn't cemented his bond with the American people, I argued, but the opportunity was there. Post 9-11, of course, in a series of highly moving and well-delivered addresses at the National Cathedral, before the U.S. Congress and in his impromptu remarks in the rubble of the World Trade Center, he did just that. He has the most talented speech-writing staff of any president since Ronald Reagan, and at his best, Bush's delivery is forceful and persuasive. He can be weak in press conferences -- another reason to add speeches to the lineup.

 In the run-up to the war in Iraq, Bush carefully enunciated his rationale for pre-emptive war. He did it so well that an overwhelming majority of the American people and the Congress (as well as the majority of our allies -- France, Germany and Russia notwithstanding) were convinced that his course was right.

 But in the aftermath of the war, the president seems to have dropped the rhetorical ball. He was prepared to exult in victory (the ill-conceived aircraft carrier landing), but not nimble enough to pivot and react when the unthinkable happened -- we found no weapons of mass destruction. For a very long time, the White House simply did not address the issue, doubtless worried that the day after it acknowledged not finding WMDs, some would show up in an underground storage unit somewhere. When the president did finally address the matter, he sounded lame, saying basically, "He (Saddam) had the capacity to build the weapons."

 Nor has the president made the case that we are succeeding in Iraq. The press, of course, has brought us a nearly uniformly negative image of postwar Iraq. A few journalists -- Chris Wallace of Fox News and Karl Zinsmeister of American Enterprise magazine -- have attempted to tell the other side of the story, but the administration has been notably absent in this debate. Why isn't Paul Bremer on the talk show circuit describing the accomplishments of the coalition? Why do we hear next to nothing about the flourishing press, the reopening schools, the newly refurbished hospitals and the new optimism among Iraqis about their future?

 The Bush administration has been bold and farsighted in the war on terror and the transformation of Iraq from aggressive, terrorist-backing, incubator of violence to struggling free society is a major part of that struggle. The public still believes we did the right thing by going into Iraq, but there are grave doubts.

 The president now finds that only 49.7 percent of voters (according to the Battleground poll) approve of the way he is handling his job. No one can pinpoint with certainty why. We do know that since April 2003, the left has been in full cry, baying that "he lied" about the WMDs and went to war to enrich his Halliburton pals. They also accuse the administration of playing up terror fears for political purposes. (How they can also argue that Bush is responsible for ignoring terror warnings before 9-11 will be left to logicians to puzzle out.)

 But by failing to keep the connection with the public, Bush left himself vulnerable to the left's attacks. In the coming days and weeks, the president will have to reconnect -- and he will have to do so about himself and his actions, not just about his opponent. He needs to revisit the WMD issue and make the case that it is better to err by assuming the worst than by wishing for the best. He will have to remind voters that everyone -- Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac -- believed Saddam had WMDs.

 Saddam certainly behaved as if he had them. So to accuse Bush of bad faith on the matter is itself a sign of bad faith. Most of all, he must frame the choice as fundamentally a question of offense versus defense. Kerry has promised to "respond vigorously" to any attack upon the United States. Bush's philosophy is not to wait for attacks to come, but to take the fight to the enemy.