By Ciro Scotti Four years ago in this space, a simple political rule-of-thumb was put forth in an attempt to slash through all the confusing polls and hot-air punditry surrounding the Presidential race: The cool guy wins (see BW Online, 8/4/00, "Cool Guys Finish First").
On that basis -- and by the seat of its well-worn pants -- this column managed to predict that George W. Bush would capture the White House in 2000 (although some remain unconvinced that he did).
However, in this election year, picking the candidate who can connect with America and prevail by sheer force of personality appears to be more difficult by several orders of magnitude for one huge, divisive, and bloody reason: Iraq.
SUCCESS STORY. Bush remains a strong and attractive candidate on many levels. I have a 5-year-old daughter to whom he has such a visceral appeal that she cried when during the Republican National Convention someone spoke harshly about the President on TV.
In any other year, Bush almost certainly would best John Kerry, for whom constructing the public persona of a regular Joe is a daily challenge. But so crucial is this election to so many citizens that just coming across as the patrician-you-can-knock-down-a-beer-with is not going to work for Bush the way it did before we lost our innocence on September 11.
Sure, Americans still like the story of Bush, the black-sheep, C-student son who blunders in business, parties like a wild man until he's 40, and then totally turns his life around. First, he becomes the hotshot public face of group that owns the Texas Rangers ball club. Then, pounding onward like the disciplined runner he is, he goes after the Lone Star governorship and ousts a strong incumbent who dissed his father, the Prez at the time.
He does a credible job as governor and surprises the hell out of everyone by seeking and winning the Presidency, defeating the second-half of a ticket that beat his father eight years earlier. Revenge can be sweet.
COURAGE UNDER FIRE. As President, he has faced a crushing range of national problems -- the stock market bust that followed the dot-com bubble, deeply ingrained corruption across a broad swath of Corporate America, mounting unemployment, and most important, a devastating terrorist attack on two major American cities. In response, he acted with resolve, and sometimes, courage. The last line of this paragraph should be: And when reelection time rolls around, he's a shoo-in -- or at least won't have to fight too hard to win.
But that's a line that I can't write because George W. Bush stubbornly squandered the goodwill of the world after September 11 and took the nation into an avoidable and distracting conflict that has cost the lives of young Americans and of untold numbers of Iraqi innocents.
The invasion of Iraq has also torn this country asunder much the way Vietnam did 30 odd years ago -- leading fellow countrymen to question each other's patriotism, inspiring a distrust of government, and rending the civil fabric of society. The difference between the quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq is that the Iraq adventure has inflamed and divided the nation at exactly the moment when it was most important for all Americans to put arguments aside and stand shoulder-to-shoulder against a common threat.
WHO'S COOLER? In the throes of the national debate over Iraq, we've come to know Bush a good deal better than we did when he was the candidate with a crooked smile, a Texas twang, and the guts of a wildcatter. And a lot of what we know argues against Bush being the cool guy who will come out on top in this down-and-dirty contest.
For instance, it's cool to be determined and decisive. It's not cool to be muleheaded and never wrong.
It's cool to cut taxes and get the monkey of government spending off the backs of taxpayers. It's not cool when the taxpayers who benefit most are the ultrarich, and then you turn around and replace the monkey with a gorilla of a deficit.
It's cool to love Jesus. It's not cool to shove religion -- or have your underlings shove religion -- down the throat of a secular nation.
It's cool to catch and kill the terrorists who attacked us. It's not cool to condone wholesale torture, approve incarceration without review, or trample on the civil liberties that make this republic worth fighting for.
It's cool for a man to know his limitations (as Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry suggested in Magnum Force). It's not cool to outsource the Presidency to the Vice-President, blindly follow neoconservative advisers who are pursuing an ideological agenda not necessarily in the country's interest, and to color the truth to the people who gave you your job.
COUNTING ON KERRY. Which brings us to another candidate who has gotten a relentlessly bad rap for stretching the facts: John Kerry. The difference between Bush's tortured data-twisting and Kerry's self-serving hyperbole is that nobody has died because of the Democrat's alleged fabrications and prevarications.
The rabid Swift Boat Veterans for Truth can rant all they want about whether Kerry deserved three Purple Hearts, two Purple Hearts, or no Purple Hearts. Who cares? He went into combat for his country. And if he came back as an angry and impulsive young man and spoke out against the Vietnam War, he had every right to do so because he had paid his dues.
The subtext of the vicious attacks on Kerry isn't just that he denounced the war, but that he broke ranks with his elitist brother officers to denounce the war. It's telling that the enlisted men who served directly under Kerry almost all support him. A candidate who has been in firefights and retains the loyalty of his men -- that's cool.
ANYONE BUT BUSH. Kerry's thin record of policymaking during almost 20 years in the Senate isn't cool. But taking the lead on important investigations and reaching across the aisle is.
Hemming and hawing and constantly making political calculations isn't cool. But being thoughtful and not thinking you have all the answers is.
Being ponderous and windy isn't cool. But windsurfing is (just not in that goofy gear).
Not being a candidate who ignites a passionate following among voters isn't cool. But more than anything else this year, not being named George Bush is. Scotti is senior editor for BusinessWeek. Follow his column, only on BW Online