Saturday, October 09, 2004

Bush Got Game

After the first presidential debate, I wrote a post called, “What Is Bush’s Game?” That post was driven by my frustration after his wretched performance that night. The post was speculative (and wrong) about what Bush’s strategy was going to be, in terms of introducing something radically bold in the area of domestic policies, but the rest, I think, is still valid in terms of Bush’s attitude toward the media. Toward the end of the post, I said:
There is also a meta-message that will hopefully be illustrated if Bush prevails in the [next] debate. Namely “Here is a president who can recognize his mistake and then fix it!” We’ve seen that Kerry can’t do this, so it is a powerful meta-message for Bush.

Anyone who watched the second debate can see that Bush fixed his mistake, and did so in spades. The first debate put some fear into the hearts of even his strongest supporters that maybe he really is in way too deep, really is out of his league, and really is something of an idiot. Bush’s performance in the second debate annihilated those fears. Watching the first debate, many, many of us thought, “What the hell is this? I could do a better job!” The second debate had me thinking, “Dang! Few could do a better job! I sure couldn’t!” It was blatantly obvious to me that Bush is anything but an idiot. This was no act. He didn’t merely skate through this because he’d memorized a few canned responses. He didn’t seize every possible opportunity, but he came across as intelligent and in charge. And he was confident (and wily) enough to come out with the impromptu chuckle line, “A timber business? I didn’t know I had a timber business. [Pausing as he turned mischievously toward the audience] Want some wood?” Does anybody remember any of Kerry’s chuckle lines? Were there any?

So Bush has given us a new snapshot that shows that strictly from the point of view of gravitas, as well as simple humanity, he is qualified for the office. I don’t think a poor performance in the third debate would have much of an effect on this. We’ve seen who Bush really is right now, and that’s enough.

Amidst the disappointment after the first debate, Bush and his media strategy also puzzled some other writers. Brian, over at Peeve Farm, linked back to my post with one of his own. It was a lengthy post and a good read. Referring to these words of mine:

Think about it. Bush does not run a 24/7 media war machine or “permanent campaign” like Clinton did (and the Dems and MSM still do). A victory for him via such methods is not a victory at all, for himself, or the country. During his presidency he has held back. The result? It’s staring us all in the face right now. Look at the Blogosphere. Look at the renaissance of discussion, analysis, and just plain thinking that is taking place. This is politics at the “grass roots”. This is engagement, this is involvement, this is a revolution!

Brian said:

I was just thinking about this the other day, actually. What has he held, twelve press conferences since 2000? Part of what's so befuddling about this whole political football game that's been raging since we saw the smoking towers on TV and wondered just what the anchorpeople meant when they said this changes everything is that the level of vitriol raised against the Bush administration has gone so stunningly unchecked. How many baseless accusations against him has Bush seen fit to go on TV to refute? Why has he not given any evening addresses to defend his National Guard service? Why hasn't he explained the role of Halliburton in Iraq, giving historical context and industry statistics describing why they have the contracts they do, and just how tenuously their fortunes are connected with Cheney's? Why, for Pete's sake, hasn't he thought it necessary to explain the overall long-term strategy of the War on Terror to the American people? And how much grief and approval points could he have saved himself if only he had? If this were the Clinton era, or even the Reagan era, there'd be an explicit Administration line on every controversy of the day. There'd be no chance for anyone to write up a sign calling the president Hitler, much less convene a 150,000-strong protest in San Francisco, because he'd have taken the stage on day three to dispense a carefully worded rationale for any action that anyone might find objectionable.

Bill Whittle, in his now famous post entitled “Deterrence” said something with parallels to both what Brian quoted from my post, and with what Brian had to say about it:

During the past two years I have been angry with the President; angry that common amateurs in their pajamas (I favor a smoking jacket, fez and calabash pipe when I dash off these little gems) have to rise and defend the policies that we wholeheartedly agree with but which have been appallingly poorly defined and defended by the White House.

And then I had a bit of a revelation. Like Col. Kurtz, I felt I had been shot through the forehead with a diamond bullet. This happened last night.

I tried to enlist on September 12th, 2001. I knew a little about airplanes; maybe the Air Force would trust me to wash them or something so as to free up useful people. They asked how old I was, thanked me, and told me they’d give me a call if they needed me.

So here I am: feeling useless. But President Bush warned that this was going to be a different war – something unlike anything we had ever seen. The front line now, at this critical time, is in the hearts and minds of our own people. That’s where the real battle is now. That is our weakest point, our breach, our point of failure. We have not made the case to enough people and time is running out.

So maybe now, at this absurd point in this new kind of war, we’re the crack troops, we old and useless pajama patriots reduced to printing up pamphlets to sell war bonds to the weary, to make the case for holding on to an unglamorous, uninspiring, relentless grind because that – not Normandy and Midway – is the face of war in this gilded age of luxury and safety and plenty.

Maybe that’s our job. Maybe we can help cover some small gap in the lines.

We’ll see. But for now, I will take up the sword of the pajamahadeen, and rise up: just another citizen-wordsmith, trying to put words and ideas where they are needed: into the stumbling gaps, exasperated expressions and defensiveness of a brave and exhausted man under a lot of pressure.

So there is some real puzzlement amongst even strong Bush supporters. In the rest of this post, I’m going to try to delve a bit more into my own intuitions about Bush and how he handles the media and rabid criticism.

If we look at Bush’s history, we find (I have no links to substantiate this, but it is something I’ve read in at least one article and seen commented on) that Bush had a reputation at Yale and Harvard of being a superb poker player. His strength was not to move too quickly when he had a winning hand, and to let his opponents vastly over-bet on a losing hand. In 1994, during the Texas gubernatorial campaign, it is my understanding that Bush simply stuck to his guns, being his polite and friendly self, not responding to negative attacks from the incumbent, Ann Richards. Out of frustration that she wasn’t having an impact on Bush or his campaign, Richards finally made a public statement in some venue or other that “George Bush is an idiot!” This immediately swung the election in Bush’s favor and he never looked back. Ah, that was a kindler and gentler era!

I believe Bush chooses to focus his energies on the actual job of being a wartime president, rather than dissipating them in a permanent media campaign, a la Clinton. As I said in my previous post, Bush wants to “cut the media back down to size”. This is a sub goal of his desire to bring a more moral, honest, and civilized tone of discussion back into national politics, which in turn, is a sub goal of restoring some fading ideals of citizenship in this Republic.

He is employing a few converging strategies towards these ends. Firstly, I think he’d be overjoyed to win despite (and if possible, because of!) the vicious hostility of the press. He’d like to hand them a massive defeat, and retain his office without their help. He would like to show them in no uncertain terms, that they do not run the show in this country. They are not the agenda setters. They are not the final court of appeal. They are not the gatekeepers to whom the President of the United States must crawl on his knees, begging to be thought well of. He’s not going to play by their rules or try to get his message out through their insanely biased filters.

Secondly, in order to vanquish the barbaric savagery of what the left has become in this country (Cartago Delenda Est!), Bush is using the strategy of letting them run wild. By not answering them on an insult-by-insult basis, Bush has allowed them to work themselves into a frenzy. I’ve never seen the idea of this frenzy expressed better and more poetically than a comment on a blog I saw a while back:

When Bush gets his second term these people are going to lose their [flippin’] minds.

It's going to be like a raging tornado made of hysteria and abuse destroying a silo packed with [BS], creating a raging brown cloud a thousand feet tall.

Now, I’m not sure if that’s what we’ll get after a Bush victory, but it’s what we have now. What does this accomplish? A number of things. Firstly, most sane people can’t keep up such rage and fury for any length of time. So why not let them burn themselves out? Secondly, such a storm of unanswered insults is a huge motivator for the base. I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I for one am fired up for some electoral revenge. I’m out there registering voters this time around. Haven’t done that before. Thirdly, it gives moderates, the sensible middle, a choice they are going to have to weigh, whether they do so consciously, or do so intuitively: Do we want to live in a country where such reprehensible and uncivil behavior is rewarded? Bush is taking a leap of faith here, but it is one that he must. If the moderate middle doesn’t see fit to lay the smack down at the ballot box because of this kind of behavior, then there is more wrong with this country than any president would be able to fix. In a sense, it would be a real dishonor to lead such a people.

What are the advantages that Bush gains if he can pull off a victory on these terms? There will be shock and awe if the left goes down. Pouring that much intensity and rage and righteous fury into the contest and coming up empty-handed? That’s a major defeat. That’s a demoralizing defeat. A horrifically one-sided Old Media culture that did everything in its power, and then some, to bring down the President, but still couldn’t sell their lies? Defeat! A New Media culture that played a key role in getting the truth out? Victory for America, and victory for Bush!

If Bush wins this, the bigger picture will show us two things. Non-stop spinning did nothing but hurt Clinton and the Democrats, while a sane, honest, quiet, civilized media policy helped Bush.

I think Bush would like to see a Republic made up of grownups capable of informing themselves and making the right decisions, rather than a mobocracy of children and adolescents that need to be spoon-fed sound bites on a continual basis.

Brian asks, “Why has he not given any evening addresses to defend his National Guard service? Why hasn't he explained the role of Halliburton in Iraq, giving historical context and industry statistics describing why they have the contracts they do, and just how tenuously their fortunes are connected with Cheney's? Why, for Pete's sake, hasn't he thought it necessary to explain the overall long-term strategy of the War on Terror to the American people?”

In conformity with what I’ve said above, I answer that anyone who wants to know and understand these issues can know and understand them. I want to know, Brian wants to know, and we do know. It’s not rocket science. However, we are not a nation of intellectuals, and not everyone is wired into the information fire hose on the Internet. But Bush is still effectively (I hope) getting the gut-level point across. Look at the JibJab “This Land” animation, for example. Why is it so amusing? It’s operating on common gut-level knowledge that it doesn’t take a PhD to understand. The stereotypes should be recognizable to any average adult in this country. Bush will kick ass. Kerry is a “UN [sissy]”. Bush does look stupid a lot of the time. Kerry is a liberal weiner. One can know these things without being able to write an essay about them.

There will be ironies if the Democratic Party and left manage to destroy themselves during this election. They could have looked at the overall strategic situation and said “You know, we lost the roll of the dice on this one. Bush was President during 9/11, we’re at war, and it is more important to support the President than to win an election. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Americans get tired of having one party in the White House after awhile, and we’ll get back in there. For now, let’s run a decent campaign, like Dole did in 1996, and be as helpful as we can to assure victory in this war.” If they’d done this, they’d probably have a great shot in ’08. If there were agreement on the importance of victory, ’08 would come down to a choice of personality and domestic policies. But, alas, the Democrats prefer a failing (I hope!) kamikaze attack.

One final thought re:polling. It is quite easy to say you’re going to vote to kick an honorable wartime President out of office out of shear spite, quite another thing to actually push the pin through the chad and do it. That alone has got to be worth a few percent. It looks like that dynamic just played out in Australia with a solid re-election of Howard, despite the poll predictions for a closer race.


Doug H said...

Excellent analysis. I also think the Democrat Party can't survive this election. When a party resorts to violence ala 1933 Germany it's done. We've seen what those types of people do while in power.

Jamie Irons said...

Good work! I especially like the last few paragraphs, and I agree the Aussie election is likely to be a harbinger of ours.

Jamie Irons

Lola said...

Great analysis.

Fast Glass said...

Nice analysis. Bush has been criticized FOR NOT bringing up in the debates Kerry's vote to authorize action to remove Saddam from Kuwait. If ever anything passed Kerry's "global test" this was it. Yet, Kerry still voted against it.

If Bush is really the poker player you suggest look for him to go first in closing remarks on the third debate and say something like this: "Obviously the Senator & I differ on domestic policies (big govt vs. small, etc). If this weren't WWIV your choice would be easy. But, a war is on and if we don't win this nothing else matters. Nothing predicts how a man will act in the future like his past behavior. In 1991 Saddam invaded Kuwait. The UN approved military action. A 40 nation member coalition was formed for this purpose. Kerry voted against a resolution overwhelming passed by Congress. Since this obviously didn't pass his 'global test' he needs to tell us right now what will."

Then he sits down and lets Kerry speak.

Bob said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bob said...

Nice job Matteo/Cartago! I too have been pointing out the "Bush the poker player" angle to folks and it explains some otherwise pretty inexplicable things.

Fast Glass: You may have beat me to it, but before seeing your comment I posted this about Kerry's no vote on Gulf I. Check it out -- I have an extra twist.