AND SO THE PRIMARY SEASON ENDS. November is still eight months away and some 20 presidential primaries and caucuses have yet to take place, but no matter: The general election campaign is now underway. John Kerry is going to be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. And that means that President Bush is one step closer to reelection.
Just as they did four years ago with Al Gore, as they did in 1988 with Michael Dukakis, in 1984 with Walter Mondale, and in 1980 with Jimmy Carter, the Democrats are poised to nominate a tedious blister as their standard bearer. In the months ahead, the voters will be harangued and hectored by Kerry, who will lecture them about how Bush has been the worst president in modern times, the Bush economy the most desperate, the Bush foreign policy the most reckless.
But as spring and summer give way to fall, it will gradually dawn on many of them that Kerry isn't actually saying anything. What was true of the first President Bush, they will discover, is true of Kerry: He has no "vision thing." He has a glib and sonorous answer to every question, but the more he talks -- and he talks a lot; his default setting is "filibuster" -- the less voters will be able to put their finger on why he wants to be president, or what it is he truly cares about, or whether anything about him is more than an inch deep.
"Excited by his resume, his panache as a war hero, Americans from coast to coast will be disappointed in the real man," Jack Beatty, an ardent liberal, wrote recently in The Atlantic Online. "They will long for him to stop his answers at the one-minute mark and by Minute 2 will have tuned out, and by Minute 3 will pine for the terse nullity of George W. Bush."
Terse Bush certainly is, but unlike Beatty, I don't think he is a nullity. In 2000 I did think that and didn't vote for him. But Sept. 11 changed Bush. It focused his mind and his presidency on a single overarching challenge: defeating international terrorism and the Middle Eastern fascists who sustain it. Hard-line Democrats have spent the past three years telling themselves that Bush is a shallow idiot or a reckless cowboy, and all the while the object of their derision has been steadily pressing ahead, advancing the most audacious foreign policy since Ronald Reagan set out to win the Cold War.
Democrats thought Reagan was an idiot and a cowboy as well, too simplistic and dangerous to be given the keys to the White House. "When the globe is a tinderbox, we need a president who knows what he's doing. We need a president who . . . has been tested by experience, who has read and remembered history . . . who sees force as a last and not as a first resort." That was Walter Mondale in 1984, sounding remarkably like Kerry in 2004.
Unlike Reagan, Bush isn't going to win a 49-state landslide -- the nation is far too deeply divided now. Indeed, Bush may not win at all, especially if the war takes a sudden bad turn. But he is likelier to win with an opponent like Kerry, who looks great only at first -- only until voters realize how much less there is to him than meets the eye.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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