In President Bush's worldview, everything is "post-9/11" except his campaign tactics. When it comes to the tired, shopworn ways in which he's attacking John Kerry, the president is, as Dick Cheney likes to say, in a "pre-9/11 mindset."
The debates altered the campaign in Kerry's favor because Bush could no longer run and hide from his own record and cast Kerry as a cardboard character. The debates showcased Kerry as presidentially consistent. Bush kept changing his act. He scowled in the first debate. He practically shouted in the second. He pasted a strange smile over the scowl in the third.
And Bush's new message is so old that it is as if he ran across a tattered catalogue for Republican political consultants from the 1980s or early '90s and ordered up a pre-owned campaign plan. You could imagine the text: "Falling behind your Democrat opponent? Don't know what to say? Just call him liberal, liberal, liberal. Compare him with Ted Kennedy. It works every time -- especially if your opponent is from Massachusetts."
In Wednesday's debate Bush stuck with this simple script: "When you're a senator from Massachusetts, when you're a colleague of Ted Kennedy, pay-go means you pay and he goes ahead and spends." And later: "You know, there's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank. As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."
Here's the beauty of debates: Attacks can be answered immediately. And candidates who are present are harder to parody. If Bush proposes to make this campaign about sticking an ideological label on Kerry, Kerry is returning the volley by suggesting that politics should be about solving problems.
Kerry's explanation of his health care plan was especially crisp in the face of Bush's efforts to turn Kerrycare into Clintoncare. "I think government-run health care will lead to poor quality health, will lead to rationing, will lead to less choice," Bush said. Does this mean that Bush would, if he could, repeal Medicare, Medicaid and the VA health programs?
Kerry made clear that his plan is nothing like Clinton's by noting that no American would be required to leave his or her current insurance arrangement. Kerry is trying to expand choice by allowing people to buy into the health plan that covers federal employees. He'd offer subsidies to low-income working people who now have no insurance -- and thus no choice at all. And he would make it easier for employers to provide coverage by having the federal government cover a large share of catastrophic costs, thus cutting the price of private insurance.
But Bush showed that he cared far more about caricaturing Kerry's plan than solving the problems of the uninsured. Inventing out of whole cloth a scheme that has nothing to do with what Kerry is proposing, Bush noted that the federal employee plan "costs the government $7,700 per family." Then he took a leap into the mathematics of political distortion. "If every family in America signed up, like the senator suggested," Bush said, "it would cost us $5 trillion over 10 years."
Pardon the word, but that's a lie, because Kerry has "suggested" no such thing. As Kerry quickly noted, families that could afford to buy into the federal plan under his proposal would have to pay for it. "We're not giving this away for nothing," Kerry said in one of his most effective counterpunches.
Incidentally, Kerry estimates the cost of his plan at $650 billion over 10 years. And even the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which did a critical analysis of the Kerry proposal, couldn't come up with a number close to $5 trillion. It estimated the 10-year cost at $1.5 trillion.
The health care debate is a metaphor for the larger problems with Bush's approach to politics. He thinks he can say anything about an opponent, true or not. He figures that if he tosses out a few moderate-sounding phrases, voters will ignore how conservative he is. He calculates that if he says scary things about Kerry's taxing and spending plans, Americans will ignore the deficits he's run up. And Bush hopes that if he gets all of us arguing about labels, we'll forget about the problems that are going unsolved.
There's just one difficulty for the president: That catalogue he found is way out of date.