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George W. Bush started his campaign for reelection Monday night. Like Bill Clinton in 1996, he has never officially announced he's running again. But he obviously is.
Bush set the political scene early. "It looks like we have a winner in the Republican primaries," he said, to laughter. "The other party's nomination battle is still playing out. The candidates are an interesting group with diverse opinions: for tax cuts and against them; for NAFTA and against NAFTA; for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act; in favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."
Take that, John Kerry.
Kerry's campaign has expected that Bush would attack him as soft on defense, and the Republican National Committee has been sending out emails pointing out that Kerry voted against funding the B-1, the B-2, the F-14, the F-15, the F-16, the AV-8B Harrier, the AH-64 Apache helicopter, the Patriot missile, the Aegis air defense cruiser, the Trident missile submarines, the M-1 Abrams tank, the Bradley fighting vehicle and the Tomahawk cruise missile. Kerry's response: that he voted for the largest defense budget in history, has voted to strengthen defense, and, on ABC News last Sunday, "I don’t know why it is that all these Republicans who didn't serve in Vietnam are fighting a war against those of us who did." He constantly interprets attacks on his defense votes as attacks on his patriotismthough the only candidates who have been attacking others as unpatriotic have been Democrats attacking George W. Bush. Kerry's constant citing of his distinguished service in Vietnam is obviously an attempt to fend off attacks on him as soft on defense, and is not likely to work if the Bush campaign repeats them in a sustained manner.
But Bush made it clear Monday night that the main brunt of his attack will not be that Kerry is a dove but that he is a politician who tries to get on all sides of too many issues. This is how he framed the choice:
"Come November, the voters are going to have a very clear choice. It's a choice between keeping the tax relief that is moving the economy forward, or putting the burden of higher taxes back on the American people. It is a choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence, or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger. The American people will decide between two visions of government: a government that encourages ownership and opportunity and responsibility, or a government that takes your money and makes your choices."
That last sentence will strike many readers as unfamiliar. Bush aides have been saying that he was going to present a vision of an ownership society, to differentiate between his programs that provide choice and accountability and the Democrats' programs, which, in their view, do not. But Bush did not take the opportunity to make this case in his State of the Union address. Nor did he talk about the ownership society in a February 19 speech as aides said he would; he made the by now familiar case for his tax cuts instead. But on Monday night he came out for the ownership society loud and clear. It's worth quoting several lines to show what he is talking about.
"My administration understands the importance of ownership in our society. We've set a great goal: We want every worker in America to become a saver and an owner. And we have an agenda to meet this goal. We will help more people of every background to own their own homes and build their own savings. We will encourage more people to own their own small businesses. We'll help more people to own their own health care plans. We want younger workers to own and manage their own retirement under Social Security so that one day every worker can have the security of a personal account. When people have solid assets to call their own, they gain independence and security and dignity and more control over their future. I believe in property so much, I want everyone in America to have some."
This vision is in line with changes that have been coursing through the private sector. Defined benefit pension plans (in which a big company promises you a fixed pension) have been replaced by defined contribution pension plans (in which you invest tax-free money as you wish). Section 401(k) plans and other retirement plans have enabled people, over the course of a lifetime, to accumulate wealth to the point that the average American in the peak wealth years (ages 55 to 65) has a solid six-figure net worth. In 1992, less than a quarter of voters owned stocks and other financial assets. In 2002, some 60 percent of voters had financial assets: The electorate now has an investor majority. Bush’s proposals are designed to enable more Americans to accumulate more wealth more rapidly and to gain control over healthcare decisions as well.
The Democratic candidates have a different vision. They want to expand government provision of healthcare, and they oppose personal retirement accounts in Social Security (though Bill Clinton flirted with the idea). They want America to move somewhat closer to the western European-style welfare states. They want to reduce choice and accountability in education. Here is how Bush characterized their positions:
"Our opponents are against the personal retirement accounts; against putting patients in charge of Medicare; against tax relief. They seem to be against every idea that gives Americans more authority and more choices and more control over their own lives.
"We'll hear them make a lot of promises over the next eight months. And listen closely, because there is a theme: Every promise will increase the power of the politicians and bureaucrats over your income, over your retirement, over your health care and over your life. It's the same old Washington mindset. They'll give the orders, and you'll pay the bills."
He who frames the issues tends to determine the outcome of the election. This is the way Bush intends to frame the issues. If his opponents will run against "the special interests" (Kerry) or "the privileged and the powerful" (John Edwards), Bush will run against "the politicians and the bureaucrats" and "the Washington mindset." The power of his framing of the issues was recognized by David Kusnet, Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1992 to 1994, in a piece for the New Republic’s weblog. "This should have been his State of the Union speech," Kusnet wrote. "Where his State of the Union speech had been partisan and pedestrian, devoid of what his father called 'the vision thing,' his new stump speech is both presidential and political; it makes the case for the Bush presidencyand against John Kerry and John Edwardsin forward-thinking, rather than defensive, terms." Kusnet makes the obvious and fair point that Bush was framing issues his way, in a way Democrats might consider unfair and misleading. But it is a message he seems to have honed more carefully than most of us thought and he is capable of repeating it, as he did his 2000 campaign themes, relentlessly.
Bush’s problem is that his vision of the ownership society is less familiarto voters and the mediathan the Democrats’ timeworn calls for extending the welfare state. And an Old Media that wrote more stories about his supposed AWOL status in the National Guard than it did about Bill Clinton’s problems with his draft board in 1992 is not going to give him any help in transmitting his message. But Bush overcame that in 2000 and now seems determined to do so again.