ST. LOUIS—Dick Gephardt’s congressional district is Busch country, if not Bush country, so if you’re going to hold a Republican presidential campaign rally in a Democratic stronghold, this one’s as appropriate as any. Mary Matalin, who’s on board the Bush-Cheney ‘04 team as a campaign adviser, is in town with a phalanx of Missouri Republicans. I’d say she’s in town to distract media attention from the Democratic primary in the largest of the Feb. 3 states, except there’s pretty much no Democratic campaign to speak of in Missouri. As a result, Missourians appear more interested in the Democratic primary for governor, between incumbent Gov. Bob Holden and State Auditor Claire McCaskill, than in presidential politics.
The Bush rally does, however, provide some insight into the general-election campaign message that the Bush-Cheney campaign is trying out. If the Democratic primaries and caucuses over the next four or five weeks are a referendum on John Kerry’s electability, it’s worth knowing what he’s expected to be electable against. Monday’s rally is the second Republican event I’ve attended this campaign—the other was in Nashua, N.H., where John McCain stumped for the president—and the president’s re-election argument, as advanced by his surrogates, couldn’t be clearer. The Republicans want the threshold question of this election to be: On Sept. 11 and Sept. 12, 2001, would you rather have had George W. Bush as president or his Democratic opponent?
Both Bush rallies that I’ve attended emphasize the idea that the president merits re-election as a reward for past performance, as much as—or even more than—any promise of future results. “On Sept. 11, when this nation faced in many respects the greatest threat to our security, President Bush stood forward, led this nation with clarity and with strength, which has earned him the admiration and appreciation of the overwhelming majority of Americans, and I believe has earned him another term as president of the United States of America,” McCain said in Nashua. The speakers at Monday’s event strike similar notes. “This is a man who has restored peace to the American homeland, after we suffered the worst attack we have suffered here since Pearl Harbor,” U.S. Sen. Jim Talent says. U.S. Sen. Kit Bond puts it this way: “I’m most concerned about the war on terror. When Sept. 11, 2001, hit us, George Bush knew what to do.”
Al Gore tried to run on the Clinton record of peace and prosperity. The Bush campaign looks like it will run on arguable prosperity and war. Kerry’s line that the war on terrorism is as much a law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering operation as it is a military one is derided. “There’s only one person gonna be running for president in November of this year who believes that the war against terrorism is a war, against a transnational army that attacked and every day threatens the people of the United States, not a law enforcement action against a few stray criminals,” Talent says. Matalin concurs. “This is not a law enforcement effort, as has been said. This is a war. This is a global war. This is a war between barbarism and civilization.”
Local boy John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act receive a heaping of praise. “John Ashcroft and the Bush administration have been successful,” Bond says. “According to the FBI director, at least 100 planned terrorist attacks, underway for the United States, were disrupted because they used the Patriot Act. Thanks heavens we have the Patriot Act and we have somebody like John Ashcroft …” I think Bond’s concluding phrase is “who’s going to use it,” but I can’t hear him over the crowd’s applause. This is Bizarro World when compared to the Democratic campaign trail, where Ashcroft is deemed a supervillain second only to Karl Rove.
“The polls show that one of our colleagues in the United States Senate is leading in the Democratic primary here,” continues Bond, referring to Kerry. “He wants to get rid of the Patriot Act. He voted for it, now he doesn’t like it.” The effectiveness of that line is undercut by Bond’s demagogic follow-up: “Personally, I like being free of terrorist attacks.” The crowd laughs appreciatively. Later, Matalin says that John Ashcroft is more than a mere terrorist-fighting, cell-breaking, plot-disrupting attorney general. “John Ashcroft is a hero.”
Argument No. 3 is that the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are irrelevant. Partly, because as McCain said back in New Hampshire, “Saddam Hussein acquired weapons of mass destruction, he used weapons of mass destruction against his own people and his enemies, and there is no expert that I know that doesn’t believe that if Saddam Hussein was still in power he would be attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”
But the humanitarian benefits of the Iraq war are emphasized more than the threat posed by Saddam. In Nashua, McCain cited a mass grave of 3,000 “men, women, and children,” and added, “My friends, when those 8- and 9-year-old boys were let out of prison in Baghdad, our effort and our sacrifice was justified.” Matalin compares Bush’s hope for a democratic Iraq to the hopes of Islamic radicals. “There are forces that want to go backwards, that are for oppression, repressing women, there is no freedom, versus going forward into the modern world,” she says.
After the event is over, I tell Matalin that the Republican pitch sounds backward-looking. OK, people liked President Bush after 9/11. But that’s not an agenda. What’s the president’s plan going forward? “This is a generational commitment to get this job done,” she says. “It took 60 years of a policy of hypocrisy, turning the other way when there was oppression and tyranny in that region, to create this kind of terrorism against America. So, getting a whole region to bring in the hallmarks of a modern state, private property, human rights, rights for women, a judicial system, market principles, it takes more than a campaign cycle. So, he reversed a 60-year policy that wasn’t working in the region, and he is putting in place, which is going to take more than one term or two terms, collective security arrangements for the 21st century.”
That’s a mouthful. And it sets up what I think will be the most intriguing question of the general election. Which candidate will succeed in portraying himself as the internationalist in the race? The Democratic contenders push cooperation, alliances, and multilateral institutions, but they also use nationalist rhetoric to tar Bush for spending money abroad rather than spending it at home (say, “opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in the United States,” a Kerry line). Taking off on some of that nationalist rhetoric, the Bush surrogates describe Democrats as isolationists who want the United States to abandon its leadership role in the world. The Democrats respond by describing President Bush as a unilateralist who abandoned the nation’s role as a global leader. Who will succeed in defining himself as a broad-minded internationalist and his opponent as a narrow-minded nationalist? Our next president.