Kerry keeps playing to Bush's strength.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Aug. 31 2004 11:25 PM

Playing to Strength

Why the Democrats should stop calling Bush stubborn.

NEW YORK—Inside Madison Square Garden, Tuesday's schedule promised another day of moderation, with Laura Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger following Monday's tag-team of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. But outside the hall, among the protesters, Tuesday is the day marked off for the hard-core left, for the anarchists and communists and the man at Union Square who is calling for American soldiers to rise up in mutiny and frag their commanding officers. Except at this convention, even the anarchists are moderates.

At Union Square, where Tuesday's "day of action" begins at 4 p.m., a small crowd gathers to block off the entrance to the park in defiance of police orders. "Ladies and gentlemen, you have to remove yourselves from the entrance," says a cop in front of a phalanx of shield-bearing officers. The crowd, which had been chanting, "Go arrest Bush! Go arrest Bush!" decides to adjust its message. The new chant: "The police deserve a raise! The police deserve a raise!" Who says anarchists aren't politically savvy? When trying to win over an audience, abandon the red-meat rhetoric and instead reach out to independent swing cops.

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The protesters and convention speakers have a lot in common, in fact, including a preference for empty slogans and false choices. But more important, they both believe that showing resolve is the most important political act. The protesters believe that if enough of them are willing to lie down in the streets and get arrested—and if they do it over and over and over again—the American people will be persuaded to consider their point of view. The convention speakers agree that doing something over and over and over again, being unwavering and unchangeable, is the best way to pull Americans to your side.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Tuesday speaker with the most, er, movie-star appeal, says that "perseverance" is the quality he admires most about President Bush: "He's a man of inner strength. He is a leader who doesn't flinch, doesn't waver, and does not back down." Sure, the president led the country into an unpopular war, Schwarzenegger says, but that's a good thing! "The president didn't go into Iraq because the polls told him it was popular. In fact, the polls said just the opposite. But leadership isn't about polls. It's about making decisions you think are right and then standing behind those decisions." Schwarzenegger echoes what Monday night's final speaker, Rudy Giuliani, said: "There are many qualities that make a great leader but having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader."

Now, that can't possibly be right. Surely Giuliani and Schwarzenegger believe that having the correct beliefs is more important than sticking by your beliefs, no matter how wrong you are. Sticking by your beliefs is probably the most overrated leadership trait. All great politicians are flip-floppers, including President Bush.

The biggest fib the president says on the stump is, "When I say something, I mean it." Did he mean it when he said that no matter what the whip count, he would ask for a second vote at the Security Council before going to war with Iraq? Did he mean it when he was against a Department of Homeland Security? Did he mean it when he opposed the creation of a 9/11 commission? Did he mean it when he opposed McCain-Feingold? Did he mean it when he said troops shouldn't be used for nation-building? Did he mean it when he said he planned to use his presidency to strengthen international alliances? Does he mean it when he says, "It's the people's money, not the government's money"? If so, then why does he spend so much of it?

Up to now, the Kerry campaign has elected not to use this inconsistent record to undermine the Republican claim that President Bush is a man of great resolve. Instead, they've decided to buttress the idea. The president is stubborn, unyielding, Kerry says. He's not flexible enough.

Kerry's approach plays into liberals' fantasies about themselves. Liberals think they're smarter, more thoughtful, more nuanced than conservatives. They think they're more aware of the complexities and ambiguities in life. They're not inconsistent; they're Emersonian. Kerry tried to take advantage of this at the Democratic Convention when he said that he understands that some things are complicated. Bush's response has been to say, as he does often, "There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops."

Howard Dean got it right when he said that people don't like President Bush because they agree with his policies. They like him because they think he's a strong leader. Unless Democrats can undermine that belief, they don't have a chance of regaining the presidency. The Kerry campaign may finally be learning this. When Bush said that he now believes the nation actually can win the war on terror (despite saying otherwise previously), the Kerry campaign e-mailed a press release with the headline, "Bush: Against Winning the War on Terror Before He Was for It." Maybe they've learned that Kerry can't blunt Bush's strength on national security without making at least some people think the president is a flip-flopping "politician." You don't beat your opponent by listening to his message, nodding, and saying, I agree.

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