This is a presidential campaign of God and man. Or, at least, that is how George W. Bush and his strategists want the electorate to view the contest. Bush is on the side of God, and Kerry is . . . well, you get the picture. And what evidence does Bush offer to prove he is doing God’s work? The war in Iraq. Yes, the Bush team has decided to use the war — which most Americans, according to polls, consider a mistake — to demonstrate not only that Bush is decisive and committed to protecting the United States but that he also is bold enough to lead this nation in a crusade to bring liberty and democracy to countries throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. And this endeavor, Bush declared during his acceptance speech, is literally a mission from God. While defending his war in Iraq, Bush, speaking from a wooden podium bearing the image of a cross, said, “I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century . . . Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” Forget the WMD; the war in Iraq is now about exporting God’s gift to the Arab world. And at the end of the speech, Bush again defined his foreign policy in messianic terms: “Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.” Now who calls from beyond the stars? Not Captain Kirk.
Before Bush’s address, New York Governor George Pataki told the convention that Bush “is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge.” That suggests a vote against Bush is a vote against God. Or is God perhaps now leading John Kerry to the fore as a reasonable alternative to the last fellow God led to the fore? (At the start of the convention’s final evening, Bishop Keith Butler, who founded the Word of Faith International Christian Center in Detroit, delivered the invocation and said, “We give thanks to you [God] because more families in America are enjoying the benefits of this nation’s economic recovery.” He did not ask God to help the 4 million Americans who have fallen into poverty since 2000.) This is how the GOPers want voters to see the race: On one side there is a bold, visionary fellow who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect America (even if that means committing a big screwup in Iraq) and who resides in the White House due to an act of providence; on the other is a concrete-minded and pedestrian guy who thinks too much and is far too grounded in reality and nuance.
Take God out of the equation, and it’s not such an inaccurate depiction of the face-off. With his acceptance speech, Bush did not say anything his speechwriters had not written for him before. But in this most prominent forum, he pointed to the war in Iraq and his larger “calling” from God as the chief reasons the public should pray for his re-election. And what can be more grand than defending the United States by pursuing an assignment from God? How does Kerry, who recently has been pinned down by scurrilous, unsubstantiated and GOP-financed charges about his service in Vietnam, match that?
By citing his heroic derring-do in Vietnam, Kerry may convince voters that he is no girlie-man Democrat. Yet his wartime exploits from three decades ago do not a vision make. He can hold up his policy papers. Look, a plan for energy independence! See this — health-insurance coverage for most Americans! Don’t forget my tax cuts to encourage business investments that will create jobs! Judges who will protect abortion rights! Environmental laws that safeguard our planet! But has he yet knit all of this into one darn inspiring call to arms?
It is as if Bush is from Mars and Kerry is from Venus. Despite some unfortunate remarks about the war that prompted complaints that Kerry was shifting his position, he has been mostly vigorous in assailing the war as a major blunder. He has called Bush’s management of foreign policy “arrogant” and “reckless.” During the GOP convention, he appeared before the American Legion and blasted Bush’s handling of the war, including lack of training for Iraqi police and abysmal postwar planning. “As a result, today terrorists have secured havens in Iraq that were not there before . . . Violence has spread in Iraq; Iran has expanded its influence; and extremism has gained momentum. President Bush now admits he miscalculated in Iraq. In truth, his miscalculation was ignoring the advice that was given to him, including the best advice of America’s own military. So when the president says we have the same position on Iraq, I have to respectfully disagree. Our differences couldn’t be plainer . . . When it comes to Iraq, it’s not that I would have done one thing differently, I would’ve done almost everything differently.”
That’s a strong, forceful and necessary critique. But it’s not inspirational. The Kerry campaign and the Bush campaign are operating in different worlds. On the election’s number-one issue, Bush is selling ask-no-questions strength and faith-based idealism. Kerry is peddling reason and realism. No wonder the newspapers have recently carried stories about panicked Democrats. The Dems should not be in too deep a funk after Bush’s successful convention, for it still remains a challenge for Bush to turn this unpopular war into a persuasive argument for his re-election. But Bush has at least presented clarity and a sense of noble mission. That’s what the fretful Dems say is absent from Kerry’s operation. And as the Kerry campaign has brought in a host of new advisers — mainly Clintonistas — his campaign strategists have promised that Kerry will focus on a clear message: Bush has taken the country in the wrong direction. That’s what a challenger has to say to persuade voters to boot out an incumbent. But such a theme does not alter the basic dynamic of the campaign: rational critique versus swagger and (the promise of) glory.
Months ago, a senior Kerry adviser told me the outcome of this election would depend on how “mature” the media and the electorate are. The key question, he explained, was whether they would be able to see through all the crapola thrown up by the Bush camp. He may have been right. The artillery that the Bush campaign is hurling at Kerry — God and country — is heavy-duty. Election Day will show if it has been targeted well. But this is a fight between Mars and Venus, and during a time of war it is easier for a sitting president, who has the ability to order actions (including misguided ones), to pose as a warrior than for a challenger, who can only flap his gums, to claim he has the right — and better — stuff.