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False Grit

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page A19

NEW YORK -- There is apparently not much to George W. Bush's presidency except his resolve.

Judging by the speeches of Sen. John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani on the Republican convention's opening night, the president has no record whatever on matters economic, nor -- remarkably for a wartime president -- much of one when it comes to conducting the war in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

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What the president does have is leadership -- pure, undiluted determination, a virtue that transcends such considerations as where exactly he is leading us. At other periods in our history, issues might matter, Giuliani noted, but "in times of danger, as we are now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision."

Of course, the Bush campaign is fully aware that on a range of issues, Americans aren't wildly enthusiastic about where the president's resolve has taken us. By a narrow plurality, Americans would now prefer that he not have led us into Iraq. And nowhere has the president been more unwavering than in his disastrous commitment to tax cuts, which has held firm through surplus and deficits, peace and war, a weak economy and -- well, a weak economy.

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but George Bush got it and John Kerry don't -- or so Giuliani and a host of other Republican speakers would have us believe. Kerry, said hizzoner, lacks the "clear, precise and consistent vision" that the president has already demonstrated.

In the happiest of sheer coincidences, the convention's coordinated attacks on Kerry's alleged lack of grit follows hard on the Swift boat veterans' assault -- both base and baseless -- on Kerry's record in Vietnam. Though Kerry's crews still swear by his leadership, the Swifties contended that John Kerry was unfit for command then and remains so.

One test of Bush's putative leadership skills, you'd think, would be his ability to rally his countrymen around a shared national purpose. Both McCain and Giuliani strove manfully to recall the moment when the nation did indeed come together, in the wake of the Sept. 11 mass murders. "We were not two countries," McCain said, "we were Americans."

But this spirit of national unity didn't mysteriously slip away, nor was it sundered by the plots of fractious Democrats. Though most Democrats and liberals backed the war in Afghanistan, Bush decided to lead in a divisive manner for narrowly partisan ends. The president made no move to bring Democrats into his Cabinet to fight what some supporters have termed a new world war. On the contrary, in a spirit of downwardly shared sacrifice, Bush pushed for further tax cuts for large-scale investors; his war in Iraq would be fought by the working class and funded by its children. By forcing Congress to vote to give him a blank check to make war in Iraq before the November elections, Bush sought to use his war as a weapon against the Democrats. This was leadership all right, to exquisitely sectarian ends. And for Giuliani to have waxed nostalgic about the post-Sept. 11 period of national unity in a speech extolling George W. Bush's leadership was industrial-strength chutzpah.

The mayor's speech was plainly crafted to appeal to a number of swing voter groups, among them blue-collar white males who have borne the brunt of Bushonomics but who just might stick with the president out of some pathetic sense of tough-guy kinship. Giuliani lovingly recalled the bond between Bush and New York construction workers at Ground Zero three days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and earlier in the evening, in a film broadcast at the convention, the leader of a dissident Wisconsin firefighters local told the president, "We are willing to walk into a burning building with you." Of course, nothing in Bush's service record, or his cosseted careers in business and politics, suggests that he'd be willing to walk into a burning building with them, but that merely testifies to how effective the marketing of the president's macho-mindedness may prove to be.

The Wisconsin firefighters are precisely the demographic that the Bush campaign is wooing with its emphasis on the president's "leadership" and its avoidance of any discussion of his record. For Bush to win, he needs downscale, white, Midwestern males to bond with him nearly as strongly as downscale, white Southern males. There's a lot these guys will have to overlook to vote for Bush -- the exporting of their jobs, and the loss of their health coverage, to name just two -- but the decimation of industrial unions in the Midwest has Bush strategists hoping that white guys in Ohio will vote increasingly like their Mississippi counterparts.

It's not that Bush is resolved to help them better their lives; it's just that he's resolved.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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