The Republicans had a "good convention," in the sense that they were relentlessly on message. But let's replay the events of the past week and imagine what might have happened if both parties had deviated from their scripts and actually debated the issues.
The week opened with an utterly unscripted comment from President Bush. Appearing on NBC's "Today" show, Bush tried to explain why the war on terrorism isn't like other wars. "I don't think you can win it," Bush said. "But I think you can create conditions so that the -- those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
In my fantasy campaign, John F. Kerry would have responded: "Bravo, George. That's the most sensible thing you've said yet about terrorism. Now let's debate how we create those conditions so that terrorism becomes an unacceptable weapon." Bush, in turn, would have responded with a thoughtful speech, and perhaps George F. Kennan, now 100, would have smiled in the retirement home for Wise Men.
But no, it didn't exactly happen that way. Bush's handlers quickly concluded that his Monday comment had been a gaffe, famously defined by columnist Michael Kinsley as "what you call it when a politician tells the truth." So they immediately sent him out to "revise and extend his remarks," as members of Congress like to say when they're fixing boo-boos. On Tuesday Bush told an American Legion convention: "Make no mistake about it: We are winning, and we will win. We will win by staying on the offensive."
Kerry's campaign, playing by the "gotcha" rules of American politics, was already on the attack. It issued a news release Tuesday crowing: "Bush Flip-Flops on Winning the War on Terror." Kerry's running mate, the genial hatchet man John Edwards, said, "This is no time to declare defeat." Finally, Kerry weighed in with the solemn pronouncement: "In the end, the terrorists will lose and we will win. The future does not belong to fear -- it belongs to freedom."
But let's return to my game of fantasy politics. Assume that Bush never appeared on the "Today" show and never said anything about the winnability of the war on terrorism. Instead, let's assume that his operative comment on the subject this week was his interview in the current issue of Time magazine. Asked whether the war on terrorism is something Americans will have to get used to for several generations, Bush responded: "Yes, I think it is a long-lasting ideological struggle. Frankly, the war on terror is somewhat misnamed, though. It ought to be called the struggle [against] a totalitarian point of view that uses terror as a tool to intimidate the free."
So maybe Bush's reflective comment about terrorism wasn't just a one-time gaffe. Perhaps, for all the bombast of the convention, Bush is trying to learn from some of his initial mistakes. And perhaps, rather than denounce Bush as a waffler, Kerry could add some ideas of his own about how to refigure U.S. strategy against terrorism -- so that it fits better with Bush's correct characterization of a long-term ideological struggle rather than a short-term military blitz.
A good place for my fantasy candidates to start would be to reread Kennan's famous 1947 article in Foreign Affairs, which outlined the strategy of "containment" that guided U.S. foreign policy during its long struggle against Soviet communism.
Kennan saw the Russian communists as an implacable, confident enemy -- a secular mujaheddin who were certain that the God of history was on their side. They "cannot be charmed or talked out of existence," he warned. The central pillar of U.S. strategy, he wrote, "must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward 'toughness.' "
Islamic terrorism, like the Soviet communism Kennan was describing, "bears within it the seeds of its own decay." It will eventually lose -- especially if the United States can avoid impulsive actions that pump oxygen into the Islamic fire.
What a crazy country this is, when George Bush tells the truth about something and the Democrats denounce him. Gotcha politics is becoming dangerous in the age of terrorism. Now that the conventions are over and the real campaign begins, America needs a probing debate about strategy -- gaffes and all.