It's Now a Fight About Fighters

Forget the economy or foreign policy. On Thursday night, Bush left this question for voters: Who's the best man to defend America?

By Richard S. Dunham

The battle is joined. In one corner, the conqueror of Iraq, the liberator of Afghanistan, the man who captured Saddam Hussein and left Osama bin Laden quivering in his cave. In the other corner, the combat veteran with the Purple Hearts, the man brave enough to put his own life on the line while other future politicians avoided fighting through various means.

George W. Bush capped his party's President-praising, Kerry-trashing, flag-waving convention with a 62-minute acceptance speech that emphasized security and the war on terrorism first and foremost. But he also sketched out an "ownership society" agenda designed to prepare Americans for the economic "world of tomorrow."

The President offered few details, but he pledged to encourage investment, reduce regulation, restrict lawsuits against small businesses, simplify the tax code, make previous tax cuts permanent, and create private Social Security retirement accounts. He promised to take steps to help communities ravaged by the economic dislocations caused by a globalized economy.


  But Bush's address was far more than a list of promises. His thematic oration tried to redefine the terms of political combat. Rather than making the election a referendum on his economic stewardship or his foreign policy record, the incumbent focused on national defense. He asserted that the most important priority of the President was "protecting the American people." To cries of "USA, USA," Bush declared, "I will never relent in defending America, whatever it takes."

The President told Americans he offered "steady, consistent, principled leadership" -- contrasting himself with the GOP image of Kerry as a flip-flopping opportunist. He labeled the Democrat the defender of Hollywood values and reminded Americans that the senator from Massachusetts once had described the sainted Ronald Reagan's Presidency as "eight years of moral darkness."

In Bush's worldview, Democrats are doubters who tut-tut about "a coalition of the coerced and the bribed" while Republicans seek to expand liberty to the Middle East. "Freedom is on the march," he declared.


  Kerry campaign officials are concerned about the month of ceaseless attacks, which started with TV ads criticizing his service on Navy Swift boats and continued through the New York confab. "In the last month, we have been talking about things we didn't want to talk about," concedes Kerry pollster Mark Mellman.

Democrats across the country have been fretting about the slow response of their candidate in the weeks following his nomination in Boston. That changed during Bush's convention when Kerry added a rapid-response team and a savvy specialist in attack-and-parry politics, former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. On the final day of the convention, Kerry dispatched his campaign high command to Manhattan to rebut the Republican criticisms. "They've been running a relentlessly negative campaign for months," complained senior strategist Tad Devine.

Kerry himself broke with tradition to hold a campaign rally the night of Bush's Madison Square Garden address. "For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as Commander in Chief," Kerry said in remarks prepared for delivery at a late-night rally in Springfield, Ohio. "Well, here's my answer. I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq."


  That would be the team of Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. "The Vice-President even called me unfit for office last night," Kerry declared. "I guess I'll leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty.

"Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty. Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation. Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting 45 million Americans go without health care makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting the Saudi royal family control our energy costs makes you unfit to lead this nation," Kerry declared.

The passions spilled out on the floor of Madison Square Garden, where Bush's acceptance speech was interrupted by several hecklers. The President continued his speech, apparently unaware of the scene, until drowned out by Republicans who were booing the protesters and cheering "USA, USA."

Such is the new political world in a bitterly divided 50/50 America. The kinder, gentler era of the first George Bush ended when the Twin Towers came down. A new era began on September 11. The next President of the United States will be one tough hombre. But which one?

Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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