NEW YORK, Sept. 2 -- The biggest unanswered question about President Bush's reelection campaign has been whether he has a second-term economic and domestic agenda to match his commitment to fighting terrorists. He began to provide the answers here Thursday night with an acceptance speech long on ambitions but far shorter on the ways or the means to accomplish them.
Bush is a politician who prefers the bold stroke over the workaday plan, and his speech wrapping up the Republican National Convention was a model of inspiring rhetoric, well-turned phrases and big themes, from planting the seeds of democracy in one of the most troubled regions of the world to remaking some of the largest areas of domestic government to meet the realities of family life in 21st-century America. It also continued the relentless attack on his challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, that has been one of the principal themes of the GOP convention.
If Bush ran for the presidency in 2000 with a tightly focused agenda, what he offered domestically Thursday was a laundry list of ideas, big and small, that would have made former president Bill Clinton envious for its length. What the domestic agenda lacked was both a sense of priorities that has been the hallmark of his political style and the passion that animated the second half of his speech, when he turned to foreign policy.
Many of the domestic proposals are not new, including some of the largest. Bush again proposed Social Security reform but made no pledge to lead on it as he has on battling terrorism, which some GOP congressional leaders say is the only way it can pass. He again called for a plan for energy independence but offered little assurance that he has a strategy for breaking the impasse in a narrowly divided Congress.
There were some notable omissions in the president's speech. Nowhere did he confront directly what he has heard along the campaign trail in battleground states such as Ohio and Michigan, which is the loss of jobs during his presidency and uneven economic recovery that casts a shadow over his hopes for reelection. The next report card on his economic stewardship will come Friday morning with the latest government statistics on employment and both his and the Kerry campaigns are braced for what they show.
Bush offered many proposals for the economy, but before he gains acceptance for them, he may need to regain the confidence of voters who give him negative ratings for what he has done in his first term. Bush said, "Because we acted, our economy is growing again and creating jobs and nothing will hold us back." But public opinion polls show that a solid majority of voters reject that argument and see an economy far more troubled.
Bush also did not confront the enormous fiscal problem that has been created during his presidency, an explosion of the deficit brought about by recession, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the massive tax cuts he pushed and promoted even as he dramatically boosted spending on defense and homeland security. Bush's desire to reform Social Security collides with his call to make permanent his tax cuts, and outside budget experts say it is unrealistic to expect to do both without further enlarging the deficit.
The president was hardly tentative in framing what he sees as the choice in this election between another four years of his leadership and Kerry's. After ferocious attacks on Kerry Wednesday night, it appeared as if the Bush team had decided to free the president from having to go after his challenger Thursday.
But from his theater-in-the round stage in the middle of Madison Square Garden, Bush cast the election as a choice between the "policies of the past" and "the path to the future." Time and again, he offered a critique of Kerry's record -- on taxes and spending, on health care, defense spending and fighting terrorism, singling out Kerry's vote against the $87 billion authorization for the military and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. He mocked Kerry for saying he had voted both for and against it and for describing the choice as complicated. "There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat," Bush said.
He also challenged the Massachusetts senator's claim to be the candidate of conservative values. Kerry has often made this case, but Bush sought to demolish the argument with a telling bit of opposition research, Kerry's own words from the 1988 Democratic convention. "If you gave a speech, as my opponent did, calling the Reagan presidency eight years of 'moral darkness,' then you may be a lot of things," Bush said, "but the candidate of conservative values is not one of them."
The first three nights of the Republican National Convention, however focused, pointed and effective, left Bush with a sizable challenge -- namely the entire burden of defending his administration's record on the economy and offering voters a clear sense of what he would do in a second term.
In disciplined fashioned, the president's surrogates methodically set up the acceptance speech with ringing testimony about Bush's leadership after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a comprehensive defense of his decision to go to war in Iraq, a humanizing portrait of the president by Laura Bush and the shredding of Kerry's record by Vice President Cheney and Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who turned on his fellow Democrat with one of the most biting and personal attacks ever delivered at a modern-day political convention.
But despite assurances from convention planners and Bush campaign officials that the early night speakers also would talk about the economy and domestic issues, anyone watching on television came away with only the barest of indications of where the president would go in those areas in a second term. The president sought to fill in those gaps by saying in the opening minutes of his speech, "Tonight I will tell you where I stand, what I believe and where I will lead this country in the next four years."
Bush's foreign policy, particularly his policy in Iraq, may be controversial with a considerable share of the electorate, but few doubt his willingness to act and act aggressively in the face of terrorist threats. But after nearly four years in office, questions remain about his passion or commitment to the economy or domestic policy.
Bush sought Thursday night to answer critics who said he had nothing to offer the voters in a second term; but whether he is prepared to shift his focus from what has been a nearly all-consuming attention to Iraq and terrorism can't be known. He hinted that he is prepared to do so, saying, "Because we have made the hard journey, we can see the valley below," but his foreign policy agenda may continue to preoccupy a second Bush term in the White House.
Domestically, there are some potentially big changes, from Social Security to what Bush said was his goal of a "simpler, fairer, pro-growth" tax code. But many of his other ideas are nowhere near as grand.
When he was still a governor and the presidency was still a gleam in his eye, he derided Clinton -- who had won reelection in 1996 promoting things such as public school uniforms -- for offering an agenda that sounded like something a governor should be dealing with. But with his own reelection at stake and his advisers conscious that suburban working women make up an important swing constituency, Bush promoted a flex-time plan and comp time aimed at improving the quality of lives for mothers, fathers and their children.
The second half of Bush's speech reprised the message he has taken across the country this summer, a defense of his war in Iraq and against terrorism and his belief that the United States is engaged in a historic enterprise to change the world by promoting freedom in corners and countries that have never known it. "I believe in the transformational power of liberty," he said, and there is no question that his own presidency has been transformed by the events of Sept. 11.
Those issues animate his presidency and his personality. There was nothing Thursday night to suggest any slackening in his commitment to see that fight to the end or his belief that it is the most historic undertaking of his presidency.
Bush also spent time trying to deflect some of the criticism that the man who ran in 2000 as "a uniter not divider" has stirred opposition by a style that critics say is marked by swagger, bluster and stubbornness. Swagger, he said, is what they call walking in Texas, adding that his bluntness comes from his mother, the outspoken Barbara Bush. It was also his way of saying that he is a man of both weaknesses and strengths, and that what he sees as his strengths -- decisiveness and a clarity of conviction -- trump Kerry's.
There were signs Thursday that Bush's convention was having the political effect his advisers had hoped for. His team has exuded confidence throughout the week as the Kerry high command arrived in New York to make the case that, despite the slippage the Democrat suffered during the month of August, the race remains a tossup.
Kerry advisers argued that while they expect Bush to get what one called "a big bump" in the polls from this convention, they still see the race as winnable, largely on domestic and economic issues. "They perceive their strength and perhaps the only remaining strength of the president is the way voters see him in terms of the war on terror and also an idea that he has been a strong leader," Kerry strategist Tad Devine said of the Bush campaign strategy. "That's what they want to move everything towards."
There is no question that the thrust of the Republican convention has been to put terrorism, security and Bush's leadership at the center of the voters' consideration of the choice on Nov. 2. But Bush's hopes for a second term also may rise or fall on the other big issue of this campaign: the economy.
On Thursday, Bush began to put some flesh on the domestic bones of his reelection message. But he has yet to persuade the voters to have confidence in his leadership in those areas. His advisers still prefer to fight Kerry where Bush is strongest. It will be left to the voters to say if that was the right choice.