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Why sizzle may replace steak

By Scott Shore
web posted July 19, 2004

I must admit that I engaged in wishful thinking at the beginning of the presidential campaign. It was clear to me that America would compare John "Francois" Kerry and the actual record of a successful war leader, George Bush and it would be a "no brainer" in favor of Bush. I now believe that there is a very good chance that President Bush could lose. My hopes for the President were boosted somewhat when Kerry chose John Edwards as his running mate.

Edwards and Kerry: The sizzle that beats the steak?
Edwards and Kerry: The sizzle that beats the steak?

While charming, Edwards also comes off as slick, too "Clintonian" and a relative lightweight in policy and governance. Compared to Dick Cheney, I thought this was the perfect metaphor of the two tickets -- sizzle vs. steak. People would feel more secure and be more comfortable (perhaps even more) with Vice President Cheney as President than the President himself and certainly more than any of the four men in the contest. The comparison of Cheney and Edwards is like the difference between the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the smooth operator in the marketing department.

Unfortunately for the President, I don't think this is going to be enough to carry the day. The President has several major problems. The War in Iraq is turning out to be not as neat and tidy a victory as people were led to believe. My prediction is that the disastrous handling of Fallujah will become the metaphor for the President's handling of the conflict. Here we had overwhelming US force, but were talked out of taking any decisive action and finally gave the job over to the Iraqis. They turned out to be not up to the job.

That seems to be the feeling about the entire Iraq-ification of the war. Typical of State Department timidity, the US chose to ignore the fact that a major mosque was being used as a military fortress. Under international law and common sense, a holy place loses its special protection once you put snipers and artillery in the windows and the building. Moreover, we were made a laughing stock by our inability to get the rogue cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Upon receiving "sovereignty" the new Iraqi government chose to offer amnesty to all the terrorists responsible for killing US, British and Iraqi forces. This may "play" in Baghdad but not in Peoria. The whole feeling of Iraq has become eerily like Vietnam (regardless of the accuracy of the comparison) in the American mind.

A more difficult dilemma is that no one is certain what our end-game is. I really don't believe most American's care one whit if Iraq becomes a liberal democracy. This adds a "messianic" sense to our foreign policy. Policies based on utopianism almost always end in disaster. Building schools and hospitals among ungrateful Iraqis is downright irritating at a time when many Americans believe that our own educational and health care system lay in ruins. What Americans really want is security. They want to crush terrorism and the infrastructure of terrorism around the world to the extent that it is directed against us or the world economy. Syria, Iran and North Korea all loom as dangers at least as scary as Saddam Hussein ever was. While everyone agrees that it was good that the Iraqi dictator is gone and that we took some sort of overwhelming military action against a terror regime, the decisions leading up to the Iraq invasion and the subsequent handling of the war are all under scrutiny. The President must reframe the entire foreign policy vision away from making the world safe for democracy to defending civilization against an implacable, insane aggressor. World War Two analogies won't cut it until this is done.

This leads me to the second reason why the President may be in trouble. The threat of geo-political instability or worse is the 800 pound gorilla that no one likes to discuss when looking at the economy. As long as the world's oil supplies, railroads, shipping, telecommunications and electrical infrastructure are at risk, firms are going to be reticent about major new initiatives and capital outlays. All it takes is one very successful terrorist incident (for example, hitting the one Saudi refinery that processes 60 per cent of the Kingdom's oil) to turn the recovery into a major global recession. Individuals may feel they have a few more discretionary dollars, but the global volatility does not lend itself to major leaps into retail spending. Regardless of how the economic numbers are "spinned" the fact is that most Americans do not feel prosperous.

Most Americans do not have that little extra bounce in their step that suggests a sense of well-being and optimism. This is deadly for an incumbent. The only possible antidote is aggressive Reaganomics and returning to the idea that government is the problem, not the solution. Unfortunately, "compassionate conservatism" has meant large and dubious new government programs and crusades which on top of the growth of military expenditures have given us the most bloated government since LBJ. This is hardly likely to energize the conservative or libertarian base of the GOP. The President just won't sound credible calling for limited government. America can not afford a "war" on drugs, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, AIDS, breast cancer, Alzheimer's, domestic violence and broken families…etc. along with the real war against foreign aggression. Most of our domestic "wars" are either not the government's business or a hopeless problem that no government could correct.

Finally, the Kerry campaign outmaneuvered the President on stem-cell research. The pro-life constituency is already behind the President. Stem-cell research is to the pro-life movement what partial birth abortion was to the abortion lobby -- a losing battle. Without discussing the moral merits of the President's position (with which I agree), everyone in America is afraid of getting Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or some cancer that might be cured by stem-cell research. For older Americans this could be a deciding issue.

When all is said and done, the election is a referendum on the President more than a vote for Kerry. Unless the Bush campaign begins to get out a clear and compelling message, Bush '43 may follow in the steps of Bush '41. Concerned conservatives or libertarians have a reason to fear a Kerry presidency and a wish the best for the President. Let's hope that the Bush-Cheney campaign are better managed the foreign and domestic affairs to date.

Scott Shore is an educator and political columnist who lives in Providence, RI.

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