How Bush Should Play It in Gotham

He must stick to his strengths, avoid polarization, and deliver a real agenda for a second term. Too bad so few will tune in

By Richard S. Dunham

The Presidential nominating convention, once the stuff of political drama and intraparty struggles over the great issues of the day, is gone. Instead of soaring debates over war and racial discrimination and women's rights, these pageants have become little more than taxpayer-funded, Madison Avenue-produced infomercials targeting a tiny slice of the electorate: the vanishing undecided voter.

No wonder John Kerry got little bounce from a well-choreographed and generally upbeat Democratic convention in Boston, and George Bush probably won't do any better from the Gotham fest. Fewer people than ever are tuning in, thanks in large part to Big Media's decision to cut back coverage to three hours total in prime time over each four-day confab.

And fewer undecided voters than ever means fewer minds to change. The polls are numbing: Just 3% of likely voters are truly undecided, while only 14% more say they could ever be persuaded to switch sides, according to an Aug. 23-25 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll.

So what can the incumbent do to break the deadlock? Probably not much, though he most likely will move into a small lead over Kerry after the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 gathering of the GOP faithful in Manhattan. Here are a few ways the President can maximize his minimal bounce:

Play to his strengths. That means character issues. Kerry leads Bush on almost every policy issue, from health care to the President's signature domestic concern of education. But the incumbent has an edge on character: Bush leads Kerry by 54% to 34% among American adults as "a strong and decisive leader," the Gallup survey found, and by 52% to 35% as a person who "stands up for what he believes in."

Bush can reinforce those images with voters by talking about taking bold steps to partially privatize Social Security -- once considered political suicide but now evidence of the President's willingness to take on tough issues. Testimonials from people who have seen Bush's decisiveness and compassion up close would help.

Sell his tax cuts and economic program. It's a truism that Americans always welcome a tax cut, but President Bush's three rounds of reductions don't seem to be helping him politically. In fact, Americans narrowly favor Kerry (who promises to raise taxes on high-end earners) over Bush on the issue of taxes. The big reason for the President's taxing situation is that Americans say they're concerned about the cuts' impact on the record federal deficit.

What's more, voters aren't buying Bush's line that the tax cuts shortened the recession and strengthened the recovery. According to Gallup polls, the nation is almost equally divided between those who think the tax cuts helped the economy, hurt the economy, or made no difference.

The President has to explain how his policies created consumer confidence and spurred purchases that helped the nation bounce back from post-September 11 economic woes. Democrats say it won't work because it's just not true. But truth is what people believe, and Bush needs to give it the old Yale try.

Swiftly end the Swift Boat Veterans distraction. The publicity surrounding a small TV-ad buy by a group of anti-Kerry vets has done damage to the Democrat's Vietnam War résumé. It has certainly blunted his momentum among voters with military records. But a continuing discussion is risky for the President. For one thing, the anti-Kerry assault probably has drawn all the blood that it can. Further flogging of the issue could prompt more news stories about the political interconnections and questionable veracity of some of the accusers.

It also surely would lead to a reopening of scrutiny of the President's own Vietnam-era military service. Does Bush really want attention focused again on his time served in the Texas Air National Guard and in Alabama? Top Bush campaign officials don't need to be answering questions about any of this during the President's big week in New York.

Avoid politicizing September 11. There's a fine line between highlighting the President's finest moment -- his steadfast, unifying response to the terrorist attacks -- and trying to use a national tragedy for crass partisan purposes. The Bush campaign crossed the line -- and got singed -- by featuring carnage in earlier TV commercials. In New York City, just a couple of miles from Ground Zero, Bush would do best if he let people such as Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and John McCain testify to his post-September 11 resolve and leadership. Too much gratuitous flag-waving could turn off swing voters.

Hide the hard right. It's a matter of faith that the Religious Right has veto power over a large swath of Administration policy, from stem-cell research to family planning. But Bush best not advertise that at the convention. After all, Christian conservatives already are charged up over the President. The convention is about reaching out to the few remaining swing voters in the center.

Parading Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and other old lions of the family-values set won't win any votes in 2004 -- and could cost some. The President remembers the debacle caused by the "culture war" rhetoric of his father's 1992 convention in Houston. The tone in New York must be kinder and gentler. And after the election -- well, if you win, you can do anything you darn please.

Be specific. This is a hard lesson for both candidates. At the Democratic convention, Kerry recited a list of priorities but didn't give voters much detail about his plans. The President should show a little leg in New York about a second-term agenda. He doesn't have to tell voters every fine point of Social Security privatization or tax reform, but he should give Americans a few details.

They'll be tantalizing in the telling. Is he heading toward an Internal Revenue code that taxes all income once and doesn't tax investments and savings? Will he dramatically reduce the number of corporate loopholes and individual deductions so the tax rate can be lower?

Voters desire more than vague promises about "fairer and simpler" taxes. The President has had nearly four years to convince Americans he has a plan to get the economy back on track. Now they want specifics on what he'll do if they rehire him. Bush advisers are promising a few policy surprises in his Sept. 2 acceptance speech. Time to stand and deliver.

It's always safe to assume that the Republican convention will be well stage-managed. The GOP Establishment is nothing if not orderly and proper. But will the convention give Bush a boost to reelection? Tune in and find out.

Dunham is editor of BusinessWeek's Washington Outook column

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