Bush Wants a Khaki Election

Roundup: Media's Take

DeWayne Wickham, USA TODAY, 12 Oct. 2004

What Paul Boller wrote recently about this election campaign probably won't surprise you.

Its squabbling factions, the presidential historian said, included"peace groups castigating the president for taking the country into war and calling for a speedy end to the conflict; harsh critics harping on the president's mismanagement of the war effort and blaming him for reverses on the battlefield; and administration supporters insisting that all good patriots should rally around the flag and help the president bring the conflict to a successful conclusion."

What may surprise you is that he was talking about the re-election of James Madison, and not the effort that President Bush is now waging.

Madison was this nation's first wartime president to seek re-election. Bush is the sixth. Up to now, no American president who sought another term during a time of war has been defeated. This history isn't lost on Bush, who was quick to remind us of his special status during the presidential candidates' second debate last week. It's one that John Kerry, his Democratic opponent, may find difficult to overcome.

Bush focuses on Iraq

The first question in that debate came from an audience member who asked Kerry how he'd answer people who say they won't vote for him because he is"too wishy-washy." In response to Kerry's answer, Bush focused on the war."I don't see how you can lead this country in a time of war, in a time of uncertainty, if you change your mind because of politics," he said.

Later, when Bush was asked about his failure to veto a single spending bill as the nation's largest surplus turned into its biggest deficit, he blamed the recession and the war on terrorism. We're at war, Bush said."And I'm going to spend what it takes to win the war."

Bush wants this contest to be a"khaki election" -- one that exploits the patriotic sentiments of voters during wartime. He wants voters to conclude, as Abraham Lincoln said Republicans had when they chose him for a second term during the Civil War, that"it is not good to swap a horse while crossing a river."

Bush wants voters to think of him in the same way that The New York Times viewed Franklin Roosevelt after he'd won a fourth term.

In Boller's book, Presidential Campaigns, which was published this year, he quotes The Times in 1944 as saying FDR"has been re-elected in a war year as a war president who could promise the country victory in the war and on the basis of victory, a lasting peace."

Emphasis on continuity

That's why Bush doesn't miss an opportunity to remind voters that the nation is at war. He knows that history is on his side. He understands that his best chance of winning re-election in November -- nearly 18 months after he prematurely declared an end to major combat in Iraq -- will be in convincing voters that it is not a good idea to change leaders during a war.

If he succeeds in doing this -- and he'll attempt to reinforce this notion during the final debate Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz. -- Bush likely will survive Kerry's challenge.

Nothing demonstrates the reluctance of voters to kick a wartime president out of office more than Richard Nixon's re-election. The anti-war movement that four years earlier had caused Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election was strong, and in 1972, the number of war dead was growing. Nixon had promised to end the war. Even though he didn't get that job done during his first term, he won a landslide victory over Democrat George McGovern for a second term.

The polls suggest that the race is moving in Kerry's favor. You can bet the Bush campaign will try mightily to counter this shift by deflecting voters' attention away from domestic issues to the war on terrorism. To win the presidency, Kerry must find a way to effectively counter that.

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