The President's Real Enemy

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Toward the end of a long campaign day in Pennsylvania last Friday, George W. Bush had one of those primal moments of joyous aggression that come to all good politicians. He was talking about John Kerry's vote last year against the $87 billion appropriation to support the troops and begin the reconstruction of Iraq. "Only a small, out-of-the-mainstream minority voted against the legislation—and two of those 12 Senators are my opponent and his running mate." The crowd booed lustily, but Bush was not done. He cited Kerry's now infamous quote: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." The President paused, chuckled and said, "That sure clears things up." Then came Bush's moment. "The American President," he said, slowly, percussively, chin out, finger stabbing the air, "must speak clearly and mean what he says."

Some will laugh. This President is known for speaking clearly only intermittently. But he was pellucid at that moment—indeed, he was firm, formidable and just about gleeful throughout the speech—and the crowd went wild. It was undoubtedly George Bush's fantasy of what the fall campaign will be like, and he may be right. The President will speak what appear to be simple truths (which will often be shameless oversimplifications of serious policy matters). John Kerry will struggle through tortured complexities, like his explanation of his various positions on the $87 billion: he wanted the appropriation to be paid for by a tax on the wealthy, and when that notion failed, he voted against the bill. But he wouldn't have voted against it if his had been the deciding vote; he would never have stiffed the troops. And on and on. If that's the campaign, Bush wins.

But that hasn't been the campaign so far. Bush has faced two opponents: Kerry and reality. And reality has been the tougher foe. On Friday, for example, the Republican-dominated Senate Intelligence Committee found the President's two main arguments for war in Iraq to be faulty: no WMD, no collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Bush was forced to acknowledge on the stump that "stockpiles" hadn't yet been found, but he and especially Vice President Dick Cheney seem reluctant to abandon the Saddam—al-Qaeda fantasy. The consequences of Iraq—including the Administration's approval of the use of torture on enemy combatants—have sapped the energy of Bush's re-election campaign. The number in this week's TIME poll that political pros will find eye-popping is that only 43% of the public want to see Bush re-elected; 53% want a new President (although some aren't sure yet that it should be Kerry).

Consequently, the Bush campaign has reeked of flop sweat all spring. It has spent a very unpresidential $80 million in dreadful, petty, often misleading negative ads. Kerry was accused of voting to raise taxes 350 times and of cutting a great many defense programs, although Republicans often voted the same way. To be fair, Democratic interest groups like have also put trashy ads on the air, but the idea that the President of the United States would put his name on such unrelenting sludge is unprecedented. The Bush-Cheney campaign and the Republican National Committee (R.N.C.) send forth a daily tide of tone-deaf, derisive and sarcastic e-mails, reminiscent of the graceless vitriol that issued from the desperate Al Gore campaign in 2000. The naming of John Edwards occasioned an immediate spew—he was called a "disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal." The President himself attacked Edwards within 24 hours, which is also unprecedented: usually surrogates do the heavy slinging.

There were signs last week that some Republicans were getting nervous. Former Senator Alfonse D'Amato called for Bush to replace Cheney on the ticket. "K Street is in a panic," said a prominent Republican, referring to the Republican lawyers and lobbyists who have been quite lucky in recent years massaging their legislation through the system. There were all sorts of rumors, proposals and prayers—that Colin Powell or John McCain would replace Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon; that Powell, McCain, Rudolph Giuliani or Senate majority leader Bill Frist would replace Cheney. In the TIME poll, 44% of independents and even 20% of Republicans thought Cheney should be replaced. Of course, the President's advisers laugh at the scenarios. "There will be changes," a Bush confidant told me with a smile. "After we win a second term."

That stands to reason. Any major change now would seem a sign of weakness. The President is stubborn to a fault in support of his team. And there was enough good news for Republicans last week—the selection of John Edwards didn't help Kerry's standing in the polls very much; the Hollywood wing of the Democratic Party staged a Kerry fund raiser in New York City featuring a crude anti-Bush rant by Whoopi Goldberg—to give the President's strategists some hope. But this election isn't going to be about trial lawyers or Hollywood. It is going to be about Iraq. And the question is not so much whether the American President has spoken clearly but whether he has thought clearly and acted wisely in choosing this particular war.