[Mb-civic] I did it my way ‹and I¹ ll do it again Economist

Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Sun Sep 5 10:21:34 PDT 2004


I did it my way‹and I¹ll do it again

Sep 3rd 2004 
>From The Economist Global Agenda

George Bush accepted the Republican nomination for the presidency on
Thursday night. He defended his record, and promised much the same in his
second term. John Kerry was quick to respond with a speech that suggests the
campaign is about to get even nastier


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WHATEVER else he does, George Bush does not run from who he is. To rapturous
cheers and applause, he accepted the Republican Party¹s nomination for
re-election on Thursday September 2nd. Repeating not only themes from past
speeches but also a brace of campaign-tested lines, he made a simple pitch:
at home and abroad, America needs more of what he has shown in his first
four years as president.

 Many, to put it mildly, would disagree‹from the hundreds of thousands that
protested this week in New York, where the Republican convention is being
held, to the ranks of the Democratic Party, unusually united this year in
its desire to send Mr Bush into retirement. The Democratic challenger, John
Kerry, returned to the campaign trail less than an hour after Mr Bush¹s
speech, giving a sharply critical talk of his own in Ohio, a crucial
battleground state.

The president began his speech by dealing with his domestic record and
plans. He touched briefly on themes that are close to the hearts of social
conservatives, such as his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. But he
also reiterated his 2000 campaign theme of ³compassionate conservatism², and
added a new theme: the ³ownership society². Broadly speaking, he wants to
cut taxes and put more decision-making (and risk) in individual hands by
encouraging saving for retirement, health care and home ownership.

 More controversially, Mr Bush also revived his call for a partial
privatisation of Social Security, the cornerstone federal pensions
programme. Social Security is facing huge deficits once the baby-boom
generation retires. The president advocates individual accounts, into which
workers would put part of their pay cheques, to be invested in assets of
their choosing. Mr Bush sold this as a way to guarantee benefits. But with a
stockmarket slump and corporate scandals still fresh in the memory, peddling
investment accounts as a guarantee against insecurity may be a tough sell.

Unsurprisingly, the nasty fiscal situation that Mr Bush would face in a
second term went unmentioned, though it loomed over his speech like a ghost
at the banquet. Big deficits‹caused by a combination of an economic downturn
and Mr Bush¹s tax cuts‹are expected to last at least ten years. The cost of
switching to Mr Bush¹s Social Security plan is estimated at about $1
trillion. He cannot push this plan, extend his tax cuts and follow through
with other new domestic programmes announced on Thursday (including more
spending on housing and higher education) without plunging the budget
further into the red. He described Mr Kerry as a ³tax-and-spend² type, but
his plans seem to show him as a ³cut-taxes-and-spend² type, not obviously a
superior breed.

Funding the baby boomers' retirement is a long-term worry, which will really
begin to bite only after the winner of this election finishes his four-year
term. Finding jobs is a more immediate concern, which has been gnawing at Mr
Bush for the past four years. Hiring was strong in the spring‹adding almost
300,000 workers per month to the payrolls on average‹but dismal in June and
July. In his speech, Mr Bush blamed foreign oil and frivolous lawsuits, and
promised to set up ³American opportunity zones², whatever they may be. The
morning after his speech, the Bureau of Labour Statistics brought him some
small comfort. Firms added 144,000 workers to the payrolls in August, and
the figures for July and June were revised up a little. The unemployment
rate fell a notch, to 5.4%, largely because 152,000 people dropped out of
the labour force. The summer job market turned out to be far worse than the
president had expected in the spring, but better than he may have feared on
Thursday night.

 The second half of Mr Bush¹s speech, devoted to foreign policy, was
rhetorically stronger and drew bigger cheers. The president, of course,
defended his decisions to go into Afghanistan and Iraq, and said that ³the
wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom²‹a far cry from his
goal of a ³humble² foreign policy in the 2000 campaign.

 After nearly a week of criticism of Mr Kerry, the delegates nonetheless
revelled in every one of Mr Bush¹s attacks on the Massachusetts senator. As
often before, the president derided Mr Kerry for voting against an $87
billion package to fund post-war operations in Iraq and then explaining the
decision as ³complicated². ³There is nothing complicated about supporting
our troops in combat,² said Mr Bush.

While he defended his assertiveness, however, Mr Bush offered no new plans
in foreign policy. He had nothing to say about reform of the intelligence
services. Iran and North Korea did not figure either. Nor, unsurprisingly,
did the still-at-large Osama bin Laden. With nearly 140,000 American troops
tied down in Iraq, there is simply little room for new threats against
America¹s enemies. Mr Bush¹s speech was more a plea to trust him for what he
has done in the past than a signal of what he hopes to do in the future.

Not standing pat

No sooner had the red, white and blue balloons settled on the floor in
Madison Square Garden than the Democratic challenger returned to the
campaign trail, giving a tough late-night speech in Springfield, Ohio. Mr
Kerry has been hurt in polls by advertisements claiming that he exaggerated
his heroism and his wounds in Vietnam. Some Democratic strategists have
criticised his campaign for not fighting back early, or angrily, enough.

That may be changing. Mr Kerry¹s speech explicitly compared his volunteering
for Vietnam with ³those who refused to serve when they could have². This not
only hits at Mr Bush. Mr Kerry noted that Dick Cheney, the vice-president,
received five draft deferments. Mr Kerry also slammed his opponent as the
first president since Herbert Hoover to see payrolls fall during his tenure,
attacked the administration for awarding no-bid contracts in Iraq to
Halliburton, Mr Cheney¹s old firm, and accused Mr Bush of depending on the
Saudi royal family to control the oil price.

 Election day is two months away, and the Democrats seem to be showing that
they can punch as low as the Republicans. Negative campaigning is nothing
new in American politics, but the enthusiasm for it at the Republican
convention, and the vigour with which the Democrats are responding, will
make this election campaign a particularly nasty one.

 Copyright © 2004 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All
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