The Democrats Have Had Their Fun. Now It’s Time to Rumble

The past few months, heartland Republicans have felt like hitchhikers on the highway of life, watching big black limousines speed by. The limos have been full of happy Democrats on their way to The Fight. Democrats clinking glasses and placing bets on Dean in five, or Kerry with a TKO. Democrats having a ball. Zoom.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have been out there all alone, looking for a lift. They just wanted to get home, have macaroni with the kids, watch a little TV. Even though when they did watch, when they turned on a cable TV news-talk show, what they were likely to see was an Inside Political Hotspot Beltway Hotbuzz segment that began with questions like, “Bush: Madman or Moron?” Or “Scooter Libby: Evil Force or Waning Power?” Or “Dick Cheney: Will the Bush White House Replace Him . . . or Kill Him?”

For two months, the Democrats have dominated the news and turned their presidential debates into commercials for their party. What have the Republicans had? A wan presidential interview with Tim Russert.

But now the battle appears to be joined.

The Democrats struck first, questioning the president’s character: Bush, they said, was a shirker of military duty, AWOL from the National Guard 32 years ago. Republicans hit back: Not only did Bush meet his responsibilities, but in 1972, John F. Kerry, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was a left-wing flake. Democratic congressman Sherrod Brown of Ohio tried to hit the secretary of state with a shot on the AWOL charge. Colin Powell backed him to the wall: “Let’s not go there.” On CNN, Jane Fonda fired for her side. By the time you read this, someone will have fired at her.

Few knew the Civil War would start at Fort Sumter, and few would have guessed that the 2004 campaign would start in Vietnam. Which, three decades after its end, continues to seem less like a war than a societal event like France’s Dreyfus Affair: Where did you stand in the great divide, and what price did you pay to stand there?

Will people buy George W. Bush as a shirker and an operator? Those who hate him will. But the rest—that would be the majority – – have watched him for three years in dramatic circumstances, and they know who he is. Will they reject Kerry outright because he said offensive things 32 years ago, slamming his country and suggesting that U.S. soldiers were war criminals? Some will. But in all fairness, there must be some statute of limitations on youthful political idiocy. The question is whether past statements reflect old thoughts or current views.

This first skirmish is about biography—not who the candidate is, but who he was. In this fight Bush has the advantage, because people know him. They don’t know Kerry. It’s the difference between neighborhood gossip about the man next door whom you know and respect, and gossip about the guy who just moved in down the block.

What’s startling, though, is that it’s all begun so soon. In the past, each party got a little quiet time. There was some skirmishing in the spring, a great unveiling of candidates and platforms in the summer at party conventions, and then the outright battle in the fall. No longer. Politics is endless now, as we know. It’s always the political season.

Over the past week, I talked to Republicans in Washington and asked how they see the campaign year shaping up. A political strategist who’s deeply familiar with White House thinking told me, “We are now in the very early stages of what will be seen as a vigorous engagement with the opposition.” The GOP strategy all along, he said, has been to wait until the Democratic field narrowed down to a single person. When we spoke, it seemed obvious that that person is Kerry.

The Bush campaign will engage, he said, on the issues. “Kerry keeps saying, ‘Bring it on.’ I suspect we will oblige. He has a long and manifestly liberal message; the record will undoubtedly be a central part of this debate.”

Republicans believe that the more the election seems to be a high- stakes and crucial one, the better for their man, who led America through the first three years of the high-stakes era. They believe that in presidential elections, the true nature of the candidate always emerges. This they see as a big advantage for Bush. “Kerry is smart and able and impressive in many ways,” the strategist said, “but he is also liberal, angry and not particularly likable.” In fact, the White House believes there is a marked lack of passion for Kerry, even among his supporters. He was the most credible candidate when Dean imploded, but he lights no one’s fire. “He’s a choice of the head, not the heart,” the strategist said.

Meanwhile, the president continues to be underestimated by the chattering classes, and Republicans are glad of this. It’s a good thing when the enemy underestimates you. Republicans believe the president connects with the public in a way that cannot be quantified and that the Eastern Establishment (my strategist used that term—I hadn’t heard it for years, and it’s due for a comeback) does not fully understand, or admire.

And there is the Bush political record itself, which speaks of unacknowledged and forgotten power. Ten years ago, Bush challenged popular incumbent and Democratic Party star Ann Richards in the Texas gubernatorial race and won with a disciplined and almost error- free campaign. He won reelection by a historic margin, with almost 70 percent of the vote. In 2000, he won the Republican nomination against a respected war hero named John McCain, and went on to defeat a tough incumbent vice president after eight years of stunning prosperity, and peace. Bush put his personal prestige on the line in the 2002 midterm election and won again, making history once more by picking up congressional seats. This is a remarkable record, and lately it is remarkably unmentioned.

Everyone I’ve talked to, including a senator who had just come from a meeting with him, says the president himself is feeling feisty and peppery, up for the battle. He believes he did the right thing in Iraq and feels internal confidence about it. He continues to hope that the question of what happened to Saddam’s WMDs, which the dictator had used before in Iran and on the Iraqi Kurds, will be fully answered in time. Were they destroyed, or sold? Are some still hidden? I was told that whenever U.S. troops find and search a new facility, Bush wonders if something will be found.

What about staff? There’s a lot of brains on both sides. Bush’s staff has been through a great deal. But when you’ve been in a dramatic White House for three years, you are exhausted by history – – and you don’t know it. Democratic staffers who’ve been out in the cold for three years will seem crisper and fresher. Well, after they sleep off the primaries, they will.

But none of that will matter much in the long run. What matters in terms of the game of politics is that both sides begin this political year hungry, one for power and revenge, the other for unquestioned victory and mandate. One senses that it may be a year of surprises. Washington has that kind of low-key buzz it gets before a long and protracted battle. Energy in the air. Gossip, too. What are Ralph Nader’s plans, and what impact will a Nader run have? What—exactly—did that unnamed Democratic strategist mean when he told the New York Times that if Bush paints Kerry as soft on defense “then everything is on the table. Everything.”? My, my. Was that blowing smoke or a real threat? Kerry has a history of grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat by infusing big money into his campaigns in the final weeks. What if his wife lends him $30 million in the last three weeks of the campaign? What if that’s the October surprise? What about reports that Dick Cheney could leave the ticket? Is that the media making mischief? Why that particular mischief?

Here’s a prediction: This is going to be a big election with a lot of twists and turns, with drama—it’s going to decide how the war for American safety is led, or not led, or misled—and some desperate fighting on both sides. Those Democrats zooming by in the limousines should continue to enjoy the ride, but like everyone else, they should probably fasten their seat belts.