Autumn is the true American New Year. This is when we make our real resolutions.
The perfect fall has two things, present pleasure (new exhibits, shows, parties) and something to look forward to—for the political, the upcoming election.
Which is my subject. My resolution is to try in a renewed way, each day, and within my abilities, to be fair. I find myself thinking so much of William Meredith’s poem about the advice he’d received from older writers: “Look hard at the world, they said—generously, if you can manage that, but hard.”
In light of that, my sense of things: They say the election is all about Iraq. It’s not. It’s about George W. Bush. He dominates the discussion, or rather obsesses the discussers.
He is talking a lot lately, out there in America, and in the Oval Office. People don’t say as often as they used to, “You watch Bush’s speech last night?” Or they don’t ask it with the same anticipation and interest.
I think that Americans have pretty much stopped listening to him. One reason is that you don’t have to listen to get a sense of what’s going on. He does not appear to rethink things based on new data. You don’t have to tune in to see how he’s shifting emphasis to address a trend, or tacking to accommodate new winds. For him there is no new data, only determination.
He repeats old arguments because he believes they are right, because he has no choice—in for a penny, in for a pound—and because his people believe in the dogma of the magic of repetition: Say it, say it, to break through the clutter.
There’s another reason people don’t listen to Mr. Bush as much as they did. It is that in some fundamental way they know they have already fully absorbed him. He’s burned his brand into the American hide.
Pundits and historians call Mr. Bush polarizing—and he is, but in some unusual ways. For one thing, he’s not trying to polarize. He is not saying, “My team is for less government, your team is for more—my team, stand with me!”
Mr. Bush has muddied what his team stands for. He has made it all come down to him—not to philosophy but to him and his certitudes.
What is polarizing about him is the response he elicits from Americans just by being himself. They have deep questions about him, even as he is vivid to them.
Americans don’t really know, deep down in their heads, whether this president, in his post-9/11 decisions, is a great man or a catastrophe, a visionary or wholly out of his depth.
What they increasingly sense is that he’s one thing or the other. And this is not a pleasant thing to sense. The stakes are so high. If you woke most Americans up at 3:00 in the morning and said, “Tell me, looking back, what would you have liked in an American president after 9/11?” most of them would answer, “I was just hoping for a good man who did moderately good things.” Who caught Osama, cleaned out Afghanistan, made it proof of the possibility of change and of the price to be paid by those who choose terror as a tactic. Not this historical drama queen, this good witch or bad.
The one thing I think America agrees on is that George Bush and his presidency have been enormously consequential. He has made decisions that will shape the future we’ll inhabit. It’s never “We must do this” with Mr. Bush. It’s always “the concentrated work of generations.” He doesn’t declare, he commits; and when you back him, you’re never making a discrete and specific decision, you’re always making a long-term investment.
This can be exhausting.
And yet: You know he means it when he says he is trying to protect America. You know his heart is in it. You know he means it when he says there are bad guys and we will stop them. And that has meaning.
With all this polarity, this drama, this added layer Mr. Bush brings to a nation already worn by the daily demands of modern individual life, the political alternative, the Democrats, should roar in six weeks from now, right? And return us to normalcy?
Well, that’s not what I sense.
I like Democrats. I feel sympathy for the hungry and hapless, identify with aspirations, am deeply frustrated with Mr. Bush. More seriously, I believe we are at the start of a struggle for the survival of the West, and I know it is better for our country if both of its two major parties have equal responsibility in that struggle. Beyond that, let’s be frank. Bad days are coming, and we’re all going to have to get through them together, with two parties, arm in arm. It’s a big country.
But I feel the Democrats this year are making a mistake. They think it will be a cakewalk. A war going badly, immigration, high spending, a combination of sentimentality and dimness in foreign affairs—everyone in the world wants to be free, and in exactly the way we define freedom at dinner parties in McLean and Chevy Chase—and conservative thinkers and writers hopping mad and hoping to lose the House.
The Democrats’ mistake—ironically, in a year all about Mr. Bush—is obsessing on Mr. Bush. They’ve been sucker-punched by their own animosity.
“The Democrats now are incapable of answering a question on policy without mentioning Bush six times,” says pollster Kellyanne Conway. “ ‘What is your vision on Iraq?’ ‘Bush lied us into war.’ ‘Health care? ‘Bush hasn’t a clue.’ They’re so obsessed with Bush it impedes them from crafting and communicating a vision all their own.” They heighten Bush by hating him.
One of the oldest clichés in politics is, “You can’t beat something with nothing.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. You have to have belief, and a program. You have to look away from the big foe and focus instead on the world and philosophy and programs you imagine.
Mr. Bush’s White House loves what the Democrats are doing. They want the focus on him. That’s why he’s out there talking, saying Look at me.
Because familiarity doesn’t only breed contempt, it can breed content. Because if you’re going to turn away from him, you’d better be turning toward a plan, and the Democrats don’t appear to have one.
Which leaves them unlikely to win leadership. And unworthy of it, too.