I do not know precisely why President Bush’s popularity continues high despite a month of the most relentless pounding from partisans, the press, the 9/11 commission and history itself (Fallujah, etc.) No one else knows either. Professionals will read the polls through the prism of their own expertise. Media people will say it’s the cumulative effect of Mr. Bush’s stirring ads. Those who agree with the president’s stand on Iraq will say it’s Iraq. Others may argue it’s because he put tax cuts at the heart of his economic policy and the economy has begun to rebound. There is probably some truth in all of this. But my guess would be something else.
I think Mr. Bush is admired and liked after three years of war, terror, strife and recession because people have eyes.
They look at him, listen to him, and watch him every day. They can tell that George W. Bush is looking out for America. They can tell he means it. They can see his sincerity. They can tell he is doing his best. They understand his thinking because he tells them his thinking. They think he may be right. They’re not sure, but at least they understand his thinking.
They are not shocked that our intelligence system wasn’t working very well before 9/11. They would like our intelligence system to be first-rate and the best in the world, and they like to say they expect it to be best in the world. But they also think it comes from Washington, it’s government, and so by definition flawed. Mr. Bush has survived not finding of the weapons of mass destruction for two reasons. One is that Americans have come to be sure that Saddam was an unusually bad man and a threat to whatever stability the Mideast enjoys. The other is that Americans believe Mr. Bush himself honestly believed Saddam was a threat. If Bill Clinton, who thought Iraq had WMDs, had invaded Iraq post-9/11 and not found them, he would have been thrown out of office. That’s because no one ever believed what Mr. Clinton said, and they wouldn’t have believed his explanations. They assumed most of what he did had a cynical and self-serving basis. Mr. Bush doesn’t have that problem, because regular people don’t think he’s a habitual liar. (This is why in presidential elections character trumps everything. It’s not some abstraction, it has practical and daily presidential applications.)
Americans do not think Mr. Bush has a persona to dazzle history, they think he is the average American man, but the average American man as they understand the term: straight shooter, hard worker, decent, America-loving, God-loving.
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They can tell he is not doing it all by polls and focus groups. If he were doing it by polls and focus groups he wouldn’t have defied the U.N., invaded Iraq, and pursued its democracy. He would have talked instead about nuance, multilateral negotiations and the need for child safety seats in SUVs. He moved on Iraq because he thought it was right and it would make the world safer. You can agree or disagree with him, but it is hard to doubt his guts, his seriousness and his commitment. And Americans respect guts, seriousness and commitment.
That does not mean Americans will give him a blank check and say: Go do what you want. It means they’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and stand by him with cool eyes as long as they feel it’s right for them and the country.
Mr. Bush’s critics say he sees things too much in black and white, but he is addressing the central issues of life and death. He isn’t dithering or dodging and he isn’t spending all his time trying to maintain his viability within the system. He’s calling the shots, bearing the burden and taking the heat. He reminds me of a man I know who was imprisoned in Vietnam. We went to lunch in a place with short candles on the table. I was asking about the Hanoi Hilton. A waiter walked by and bumped the table, which made a candle tilt against a wicker basket full of bread. The basket was lined with paper napkins, which went up in flames. The man didn’t change his tone of voice as he continued his story, quietly picked up the flaming basket, placed it on the floor and softly stepped on it with his large right shoe. The flames went out. He continued his narrative as he eyed a waiter, handed him the smoking basket and asked for more bread. President Bush reminds me of that guy. He would not offer sensitive or witty commentary on how odd it is to be surprised by fire on a spring day, but he would put the fire out.
Mr. Bush has the calm and anxious face of an American man who believes in God but just read the raw threat file. He knows what trouble we’re in and he knows what time it is. He is alert and determined but ultimately trusting and hopeful, because there really is a God and he really is watching. This is very American.
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The implications for the election? We all know a presidential campaign involving an incumbent is in good part a referendum on that incumbent. Which sounds like a one-part process, but it’s a two-part process.
If you want to fire the incumbent, you have to have someone to hire in his place. The guy who opposes the incumbent has to seem like a credible president. He has to be a real alternative, a possible president. So far, roughly four months into his national fame, John Kerry has not made the sale. There are people who have Bush-fatigue, but they do not have Kerry-hunger.
So far he doesn’t seem like a possible president. He seems somewhat shifty, somewhat cold, an operator. He has a good voice but he seems to use it most to slither out of this former statement or that erstwhile position. It’s OK that he looks like a sad tree, but you can’t look like a sad, hollow tree. And it looks a little hollow in there. As if Iraq is an issue Kerry feels he has to handle deftly, and not a brutal question we have to solve, together. As if homeland security is an issue, or civil defense, or preparedness. They’re not issues. They’re life and death. Mr. Kerry doesn’t seem to know.
Which is why he isn’t gaining traction, or gaining purchase on the president. The Democrats and their nominee say on one day that Mr. Bush ignored terrorism, and on the next that he exaggerated the threat. They say his administration didn’t give enough time to planning Iraq, then they say he was obsessed with Iraq. They say he’s dimwitted and gullible, then they say he’s evil and calculating—he cooked Iraq up in Texas, in Ted Kennedy’s phrase.
You know why they can’t define what’s wrong with Mr. Bush? Because they don’t even know what’s wrong with him beyond that he is not them, not Mr. Kerry, not a Democrat.
Can the Democrats win this way? No.