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."
Successful challengers like Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 have been characterized by their bold, clear agendas. Why didn't Kerry highlight one at his convention? "They were waiting for the other guy to collapse," says a Bush campaign official. "We're not in the position that Reagan and Clinton were in when they won their re-elections, even if we're very close. But we are not anywhere near the position Carter or Bush were in when they lost."
However you look at it, Bush is indeed vulnerable. Pundits who, in light of that, say he must appeal to undecided voters and not his base are missing something important. The Bush team thinks there are two kinds of undecided voters, those who don't know who they are going to vote for and those who don't know whether they are going to vote. Appealing to the second category by juicing up turnout can be crucial. Bush officials say the 2002 and 1994 Republican midterm victories were both based on turnout successes they hope to duplicate this year.
"Most independents are not motivated by ideology, but by issues," continues a Bush campaign official. "The issues they care about are the war on terror and the economy. Those happen to be the issues our base cares about too. So we can appeal to both." That means the winning formula should be talking substance, and change. The status quo? If anyone wants to defend it, it will have to be John Kerry.