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Outlook: Ready for a Dramatic Campaign?

Peggy Noonan
Political Commentator
Tuesday, February 17, 2004; 1:00 PM

For months, it's been all Democrats, all the time. In this primary season, the Democrats have been getting all the attention and all the good press, while Republicans have had to watch their man in the White House get pummeled by reports that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, the economy still isn't producing significant numbers of jobs, and other gloomy news. But at last, the GOP's days on the sidelines appear to be over, as backers of President George W. Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry have gone after each other over that perennial hot-button issue... Vietnam. While Democrats are calling Bush a "deserter" and "AWOL" from his National Guard duty in 1972, Republicans are shooting back at Kerry with charges that he was a left-wing flake and Jane Fonda supporter who betrayed his country by turning against the war in which he had fought and won several medals.

Such skirmishing is breaking out startlingly early, says political commentator Peggy Noonan in her Sunday Outlook piece, The Democrats Have Had Their Fun, Now It's Time to Rumble, before the Democratic nominee is even finally settled. But it shows that the White House is in fighting trim, ready for a campaign that may prove to be one of the most dramatic in recent memory.


Noonan was online Tuesday, Feb. 17 at 1 p.m. ET, to answer questions about her Sunday Outlook article and Election 2004.

Noonan is a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and the author of six books on politics and culture. She does commentary for MSNBC.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Southwest Florida: Ms. Noonan,

I greatly enjoy your Wall Street Journal pieces and appreciate your way of personalizing important issues while still seeing the bigger picture.

What do you see as the greatest risk President Bush faces in his reelection campaign? Is it overcoming the opposition's outright vitriol (can that ever happen?), or is there something more compelling?

Peggy Noonan: Bush faces a lot of challenges in the coming campaign. Here's one that interests me. The party that has not been in the White House is always hungry, highly energized. This year they're even more so, in part because of the continuing wound of the 2000 election, when they won the popular vote and lost in the electoral college. So the Democrats this year feel heightened passion. And that's heightened passion within a country that is now always fairly passionate about politics. I watched Ted Kennedy and Teresa Heinz campaigning in Wisconsin yesterday. It was live on C-Span. I thought: This is the rise of the Broken Glass Democrats. Remember Broken Glass Republicans in 2000? They'd crawl over broken glass to help their guy. I am seeing something like that among the Dems, I think.

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Boston, Mass.: Dear Ms Noonan:

I'm a huge fan of yours.

Your comments on the present day culture of our country factors much into the political realm. Do you see this election more of a referendum (like the last election) on who best represents us as people rather than the traditional issues like taxes, foreign policy and budgets?

Peggy Noonan: I think this election will be a mandate election. Either you think the president and his men and women have been leading us in the right direction economically (tax cuts, etc.) domestically (an attempt to counter such mistakes as rejecting faith based groups as worthy of governmental inclusion and encouragement in fighting various social ills) and in terms of foreign affairs (the vigorous exercise of American power post 9/11, from defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan to moving against Sadam's dictatorship.) If you think Bush has moved in the right direction in those areas, you vote for him. If enough do and he wins well, he can claim the mandate of the American people to keep on keeping on.

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Glenmont, Md.: John Kerry and most of the other Democrats are constantly bashing Bush for the war on terrorism. Have any of these candidates offered a better plan for combating terrorism? Do the Democrats really believe they can get elected without assuring the American voters that they'll be safe from international terrorists?

Peggy Noonan: I suspect president Bush will speak again and again of his efforts in the war on terror, and his successes, and what has not succeeded, and what needs more work and resources. At some point the Democratic candidate is going to have to tell us how he sees that war, what the war means, how it can be fought more successfully, and what he will do to keep America safe. The Democratic position on this Issue of All Issues seems to me a blur. A gusty blur of rhetorical assertions -- 'I'll fire John Ashcroft!' More is needed.

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Southern Maryland: David Broder once predicted that the baby-boomers will still be fighting over the 1960s from their nursing-home rocking chairs. Looking at the 2004 campaign, I think he's right. Will every presidential contest between baby-boomers for the next 20 years be this divisive?

Peggy Noonan: I'll tell you something I've noticed, as a boomer. When members of my generation talk with each other about Vietnam we are almost all of us reflexively sympathetic to whatever the heck the other person did or didn't do. Because we know we were all 18 then, and swept by various fears and hopes and longings. Like any 18 year old. But when the subject of Vietnam enters the public realm, it gets more...starkly divided, I guess. I honor most the young men, and some women, who went there. Partly because they answered their country's call, partly because a lot of them knew what communism was and put themselves on the line to resist its advance, and partly because so many of them didn't come from the most comfortable environments back home. But really, 30 years later I find it hard to judge anyone who was a kid in those days.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Will enchanted dolphins arrive in time to save President Bush's drowning Presidency like they saved Elian?

Peggy Noonan: Maybe. And maybe he won't need saving. And maybe the Democrats will. And maybe by the election you'll need saving, and perhaps some of Bush's decisions made in connection to the war on terror will save you. It's all the maybes that keep us getting up in the morning with a sense of excitement and anticipation, don't you think?

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Oakton, Va.: My first vote for President was for Barry Goldwater and I haven't looked back, except in 1992 when I voted for Perot. I'm as rock ribbed a Republican as you'll find. So I have to ask: what's so conservative about this President Bush? Clinton disgusted me, but he was disciplined in bringing down the budget. Bush on the other hand never saw a spending program he didn't like. Now, there's no way I'd vote for a Democrat, but if Bush thinks he can take my vote for granted he'll have a sorry surprise on November 3. Just ask his dad.

Peggy Noonan: Clinton wasn't disciplined in bringing down the budget. Clinton had such a disastrous presidential beginning that he got himself a Republican House and senate for the first time in more than four decades. It was the spirit of the Contract with America that did more to get the budget in balance -- and the internet bubble, and all that happened in the economy in the 90s -- than Mr. Clinton. I think Bush is making a big gamble. He is one big gambling political figure. He is refusing to fight over spending in hopes of preserving general unity on the big thing: the war on terror. But in doing this -- in attempting to take so many issues 'off the table' for the Dems, he risks taking Republican issues off the table for Reps. Big gamble. He may or may not be right in doing this, but he is right I believe in knowing the great focus is the war on terror. Good luck on your decision.

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Rockville, Md.: Dear Ms. Noonan:

Despite the fact that I often disagree with you, I thank you for showing that cable news commentators can conduct themselves with grace and dignity, and with respect for those who express opposing opinions; such a quality is regrettably scarce these days.

Regarding your Outlook piece, it seems premised on Senator Kerry as the nominee, yet your recent televised commentary predicted (or at least suggested) that John Edwards will be the eventual nominee. I believe that Democrats are shifting to Kerry in such large numbers because they believe he has the best chance to defeat President Bush, and that the interest in the military records of both men foreshadow a campaign that will be, in large part, a referendum on the propriety of the Iraq war. Do you believe Edwards, lacking a military record, will be able to go toe to toe with Bush on Iraq as effectively as Kerry? Will democratic voters respond more favorably to the positive demeanor that Edwards exhibits (as you said "This guy's always smiling"), or to an extended replay of the anti-Vietnam debate which a Kerry candidacy would likely bring? In short, who do you believe has the greatest ability to energize the Democratic rank and file come November?

Peggy Noonan: Thanks for what you said. I like, or feel hopeful about liking, just about everyone I talk to on news shows so it's not hard to treat them with respect, and sometimes affection. I continue to think Edwards would be a better candidate than Kerry against Bush. Lots of reasons. One is that he's a southerner and I like southerners. Southern Democrats at least grew up immersed in a culture that is American and not, say, Cambridge-ian. This was Clinton's big plus, until he turned out to be disturbed. But there are other reasons to see Edwards as a good candidate, such as...it's going to be hard to watch and listen to Sen. Kerry the next nine months -- I keep thinking of the bartender who looks up at the horse and says, 'Why the long face?' Edwards talks more like a person. I still don't fully understand why the Dems haven't gone for him in greater numbers.

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Boston, Mass.: No matter what happens with Kerry or Iraq or anything else, Bush will rack up 55 to 60 percent in most of the deep south, plains, and mountain west.

Just what is it, in your view, that makes Bush so attractive to the "heartland"?

I am at a loss to understand the cultural attitudes of these voters.

Peggy Noonan: Well, that's a big question. Try this as part of the answer. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He's normal. He thinks in a sort of common sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He's not exotic. But if there's a fire on the block he'll run out and help. He'll direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, "Where's Sally?" He's responsible. He's not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world. And then when the fire comes they say, "I warned Joe about that furnace." And, "Does Joe have children?" And "I saw a fire once. It spreads like syrup. No, it spreads like explosive syrup. No, it's formidable and yet fleeting." When the fire comes they talk. Bush ain't that guy. Republicans love the guy who ain't that guy.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: the "enchanted dolphins." You're a very good sport to have taken that question and answered it so mildly. Presumably the questioner was trying to get a rise out of you.

Peggy Noonan: I know. But I don't mind being patronized by super-rationalists. They're so...what they are.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am a huge fan of your writings -- you always bring a fresh point of view to the readers attention. What do you think will be the most decisive issue in this election? Will it be the ecomony? The war on terror? Something new?

Peggy Noonan: To me the big and only issue is the war on terror. We are living in a time -- it cannot be said enough -- when madmen with weapons that can take out a million people are roaming the earth. It's a new time in history, and we have to know it. I live in NYC -- the east side of Vesuvias. Whether we lose millions in the next few decades -- what could be a bigger question than that?

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Ms. Noonan-

Thank you for your objectivity and thank you for reminding me why I pray each night that a Democrat returns to the White House in 2004.

Peggy Noonan: That's what I'm here for.

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Washington, D.C.: Why doesn't the White House emphasize more the great accomplishments in Iraq? Sooo much progress has been made in regards to quality of life, new schools and hope. Iraq is clearly better off now than it was 12 months ago. Bush and Blair are the reasons why this has occurred. If Kerry were President we would still be at the UN Saddam would be feeding people into industrial shredders and Uday would be grabbing any 15-year-old girl off the street he wanted. The fact is Saddam ran the infrastructure of Iraq into the ground and it is going to take more then a few months to fix it all up.

Peggy Noonan: I know. We have an odd light switch mentality, don't we? Sadam is out -- therefore Iraq had better have a fully functioning democracy up and operating by Thursday! It's oddly difficult to get the Iraq story told in real time. History will tell it.

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Preston, Idaho: I just read a piece by James Lileks claiming that people are complaining that Bush is not a modern Reagan, because, for one reason,of his unpopular plan for dealing with illegal aliens (but that we should vote for him anyway, because he scares terrorists). And it seems that a lot of people are grumbling about that proposal. Do you think he should back away from it? And how do you think Reagan would have handled the current concerns about illegal aliens?

Peggy Noonan: I love Lileks. I love the voice of the internet, and the straight shooting voices of Blogville. Reagan was reflexively sympathetic to immigration and immigrants -- it's where he felt we all came from, it made us what we were and are. Again -- many voices. He'd be sympathetic to any plan that helped people work here and live constructive lives here. But he'd worry about the effect of the welfare state on the assumptions of new immigrants. I often think about this: when my people came here from Ireland at the turn of the 20th century they were not highly taxed. And they expected nothing in return. They all took working class jobs. But in 20 years they had enough to actually buy a house! Because they got to save. Because the taxman wasn't there. But to get back to your question: I really do not know where Reagan would have stood on the Bush immigration proposal. His was another era. He was born in 1911.

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Parkville, MD: I loved (in an ironic sort of way) the Op. Ed. piece you wrote in the Wall Street Journal (Philosophy, Not Policy) in which you tried to explain why George Bush is good at speeches but bad at interviews. You wrote:

"Democratic candidates tend to love the game of politics, and Republican candidates often don't. Democrats, because they admire government and seek to be part of it, are inclined to think the truth of life is in policy. How could they not then be engaged by policy talk, and its talking points?

Republicans think politics is something you have to do and that policy is something you have to have to move things forward in line with a philosophy. They like philosophy. But they are bored by policy and hate having to memorize talking points."

So George Bush is bad at speeches because he's basically a "philosopher-president" who has no time for the sophistries and "game of politics."

I've got a different take on the whole matter, however. Here's what I think: George Bush is (comparatively) good at speeches and (undeniably) bad at interviews, because speeches are written for him by intelligent rhetoricians and all he has to do is read them, whereas in interviews he has to come up with the words and ideas all by himself!

Peggy Noonan: Well, take Bush out of it for a minute, because sometimes animus blocks perception. I think Repubs in general are better at speeches than interviews, and I do think this has to do with philosophy, and where someone is intellectually coming from, and the demands of rhetoric versus the demands of the interview. In interviews it's never, "Talk to me about the philosophical undergirdings of your views on federal spending and federal taxation." It's always, "Will you retreat on medicare if the Republicans don't back your views on co-pay?" There the answer always has to be something that deals with a bill and a provision, and it gets dressed up with a phrase -- 'Giving our seniors the life they deserve" or something like that. Democrats live for bills and provisions. Republicans live for...other things. Advantage in interviews: Democrats. Advantage in a speech, which demands at least the suggestion of a philosophy? Repubs.

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Arlington, Va.: Regan's presidency was probably a good thing, but the hagiography surrounding him, I always find a little disturbing. You're a big contributor to that. Do you ever stop and think to yourself, "wait a minute, this is just a man we're talking about here."

Peggy Noonan: This is interesting to me. I wrote a piece for the Journal once called, I think, "Why We Talk About Reagan." It said essentially that we conservatives, having seen his greatness and being grateful for it, feel we must protect it in a media environment that has never been sympathetic to Reagan or Reaganism and will never be sympathetic. So we must hold high our standard. (For different reasons and in different ways -- 'Sunrise at Campobello', for instance, and 'Eleanor and Franklin' -- liberals did the same with FDR. Until they'd made their point. However, it is interesting to me the final thing Reagan did to confound his foes. He continued living. Which leaves what might be called media royalty -- anchors, etc -- all vying with each other to get the big gets when he leaves us. And this has left THEM celebrating Reagan, in their way. If Reagan had left us ten years ago, they would not be celebrating him now. But bigger point: Reagan was actually a great man. We don't have enough of these. It's our responsibility to celebrate it, and thus implicitly encourage greatness.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you talk for a moment about whether Bush can cast his candidacy in optimistic terms: we are getting better, safer, and our entrepreneurs can take risks again? Is that effective language, and are people receptive to it?

Peggy Noonan: Yes. It's important to remember in this conversation that Bush hasn't really begun to fight back. I hope when he does it's like D-Day, and not the trench warfare of WWI. I hope it's a big and surprising unveiling of power.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Do political speech writers ever look at their bosses with anything other than fawning devotion?

I'm choking on all the Republican sweetness here today.

Peggy Noonan: Don't choke! Speechwriters in my experience tend to be just about the most observant of the men and women around a president. Their thoughts are often treasure troves for historians. I worry though that they can't keep diaries as they used to. (The subpoena problem.) A lot would have been lost to history if Harry Rosenman and Bob Sherwood hadn't been able to take notes. In connection with this I told a speechwriter for Bush once to take notes anyway. If no one ever subpoenaed them, good! If someone did at least they'd find out what a great writer he is on the Hill. And they'd all gossip about it -- that's what the Hill produces most reliably -- and word would get to a publisher and...

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Bethesda, Md.: How can you characterize John Kerry's anti-Vietnam criticism as "youthful idiocy" when history has proven him to have been correct?

Peggy Noonan: Kerry's comments when he returned from the war reflected in my view youthful idiocy. He was so eager to condemn the war that he allowed himself to condemn the good men who fought it. Idiocy. But yes, again, youthful idiocy.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I love how Republicans have a knee-jerk reaction to taxes, as if they were the root of all evil.

Of course taxation can be overdone, but it seems that Republicans don't want ANY!

So how much in taxes should the citizens of the world's foremost economic and military power pay? (Keep in mind that cutting social programs often causes other problems that tax money has to be spent on later!)

Peggy Noonan: Really? I'm surrounded in NY by Democrats who love to say taxes can be burdensome, but who refuse to talk at all about what tax rate is too high, and how much a man or woman owes the government -- 30 percent? 58 percent? -- they don't want to talk about this at all! And I must tell you, most of those who will not talk about what's too much, and how much we owe, employ fleets and bevvies and flocks of accountants to keep their taxes down as much as possible. They're so rich they don't even know what they pay in taxes. And it doesn't matter to them. But my friends Sue and Vin who work in education and for the phone company -- they're killed by taxes. And could use a little relief. Where is your compassion?

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Gambrills, Md.: Your characterization of Bush as a firefighter was as follows: "But if there's a fire on the block he'll run out and help. He'll direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, "Where's Sally?" He's responsible. He's not an intellectual."

So, during Vietnam, where was Bush? John Kerry was in Vietnam earning several Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze star for, among other things, being in charge of a swift boat, taking out enemy soldiers when his shipmates were under fire, and saving one of his shipmates who had fallen overboard.

Bush was campaigning for a family friend in Alabama, after he used family favors to get into the National Guard in order to avoid service. That's responsible?

Peggy Noonan: Let me put it another way: Where is Kerry now? Where is he on Iraq, on mideast policy, on the war on terror? Do you really believe he's fighting the fire? In honor Kerry's service in Vietnam -- who doesn't? But I'd like to see him take more responsibility now. As for Bush, I knew a lot of people who didn't join the Guard back then and didn't learn how to fight. I think you're too quick to put down his service.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Excuse me? "Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man." He used connections to bypass 500 others to get in the Guard, his father's friends helped him in the oil and baseball business, and he's in the White House thanks to people his dad appointed. So how is that average? Sounds a lot more like the triumph of the well-connected American man.

Peggy Noonan: Put your resentment away for a second and consider this. There's a funny thing about Bush. He started life with all the advantages -- parents, security, standing. And yet I have noticed there is about him the lack of smoothness, and the chippiness, of one who is self made. He's not like some smooth countryclub entitlement baby, he's rougher and less...lemonade on the porch in Greenwhich-y. I think it's Texas. What do you think?

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Cambridge, Mass.: In what sense did John Kerry ever -- EVER -- demean the men who fought the war? Cite a single example -- and, if you're going to use the Winter Soldier stuff, please quote the entire text. Don't cheat now -- in which John Kerry criticized his brothers-in-arms. He specifically criticized the policymakers from both parties.

And, by the way, we here in Cambridge are every bit as American as any Beltway noontime rhetorical hootchie-koo dancer.

Peggy Noonan: Cambridge, I have never been called a Beltway noontime rhetorical hootch-koo dancer and I just have to say: thank you.

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