Bush Lite: What’s With the President’s Re-election Campaign?

Posted March 12, 2004 at 1:24pm

OK, so where are they? And why can’t we find them?

I’m not talking about those weapons of mass destruction. Or even the jobs that were supposed to be created by the economic recovery. No, I’m talking about those nasty, vicious, unfair assaults from what Democrats refer to as the Republican attack machine. [IMGCAP(1)]

Democratic Party lore holds that the Republicans fight dirtier than they do. The evidence most often cited includes the so-called Willie Horton ad from 1988, Saxby Chambliss’ TV ad attacking then-Sen. Max Cleland (D) in the 2002 Georgia Senate race, and attacks by Bush allies on Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the 2000 GOP presidential race, particularly leading up to the South Carolina primary contest.

Regardless of whether you agree that one party tends to be nastier than the other in its attacks (and I don’t), this year’s Bush campaign has been anything but aggressive or quick to counterpunch.

Yes, it’s a long campaign, and the Republicans don’t need to waste all of their ammunition in March. And yes, the new Bush campaign ads have begun to spotlight Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) record in a way that Democrats won’t like.

But in trying to stay somewhat above the fray and act “presidential,” Mr. Bush — and, even more importantly, his campaign — are starting to look a little, well, wimpy.

It’s hard to understand Kerry’s recent complaints about the Republicans’ “negative attacks,” especially after the months of attacks that the president absorbed from the Democratic presidential field.

The new Bush ads are critical of the Massachusetts Senator, but they are rather predictable and not unlike the gazillion TV ads that I have seen in other presidential, House, Senate and gubernatorial races over the past two and a half decades.

Democrats attack Republicans for not caring about children, the elderly and working Americans, while Republicans attack Democrats for being weak on defense and supporting higher taxes. What else is new? These boilerplate partisan charges are what some TV cable hosts call “dirty” politics? Give me a break.

Yes, if you listen to talk radio or watch certain cable TV shows you’ll hear often-smug partisan ideologues (such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on the right and Michael Moore and Al Franken on the left) smearing the opposition. But if you take those people completely seriously, you have your own issues to deal with.

So far, the most negative attacks in the presidential race have come from influential Democrats, who raised questions about whether Bush knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks before they happened, whether he cheated in his National Guard service and whether his policy on Haiti is an example of blatant racism.

While Kerry and his allies never miss an opportunity to skewer the president or Vice President Cheney, the GOP rapid-response team seems less than rapid and not particularly responsive.

When Democrats and gay-rights groups jumped on the president’s support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, Democrats and gay groups attacked the White House for being “divisive.”

The Bush campaign’s response was almost sheepish. Sure, the president needs to avoid appearing shrill or intolerant on that issue, but Bush’s allies didn’t make much of an effort to turn the attacks back on the attackers. The Republicans’ campaign just was not very aggressive.

And when critics of the president attacked the Bush campaign’s initial ads for briefly using images from Sept. 11, the re-election campaign did little more than deny the charges. The first Bush ads weren’t even close to being over the line, but instead of being indignant and criticizing the critics as partisan Democrats, the Bush campaign adopted a defensive pose.

It is not as if the Bush campaign doesn’t have some articulate, combative spokesmen. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie can hold his own against anyone, and former Bush campaign adviser Karen Hughes is usually effective at counterpunching. But the president’s campaign needs to do a far better job answering every criticism and getting its own message out.

Overall, the Bush campaign simply hasn’t shown much toughness. Bush chairman and former Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot has a lot of positive qualities — but aggressiveness is not one of them.

Kerry and his allies, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), have done a terrific job taking the fight to Bush and responding to criticism. They’ve hit Bush on legitimate issues, such as jobs, Iraq, special interests and health care, as well as on more controversial ones, such as Bush’s military service. And that’s what a campaign should do.

Kerry isn’t giving any ground, either. When he slandered the Bush team by referring to them as “liars,” he didn’t apologize. Instead, he used questions about his comment as an opportunity to get another shot in at alleged GOP “attack squads.”

The Kerry and Bush campaigns have plenty of ammunition to use against each other, and we are certain to see both sides score points and both sides complain about the other’s attacks. But so far, in the initial rounds of this heavyweight title fight, it’s Kerry’s campaign that looks sharper, quicker and meaner.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.