Trail Mix: A Black-and-White Presidency

At his press conference on Tuesday evening, George W. Bush was strong, confident and aggressive--and weak, hesitant and defensive. He was humble, he was arrogant. He showed his fine political antenna and his tin political ear. He was eloquent, and he was tongue-tied. You can see why people love or hate him. It's not just because of his policies. It's because he embodies those black-and-white contrasts himself.

How strong was Bush? Strong enough to show an unshakable conviction that Iraq was a just war and a noble cause that needs to reach its rightful conclusion. How weak was he? Weak enough to show no clear path as to how Iraqis will secure their own country and reach their destination.

He was aggressive about taking the fight to the terrorists and Islamic extremists. Yet he was defensive about how small his coalition remains in Iraq. He confidently predicted success against the terrorists, yet he ignored how Iraq is serving to recruit new terrorists against America. He voiced support for the rights of Muslims to live in freedom, but he surely antagonized many by suggesting that America was entrusted by the Almighty to spread freedom. He was eloquent about the suffering of American casualties in Iraq and those who died on 9/11. Yet he showed his tin ear by refusing to concede his mistakes before 9/11 and in Iraq.

Such contrasts help explain why there are so few don't-knows about the president. In the latest NEWSWEEK poll, just 6 per cent said they didn't know if they approved or disapproved of his performance as president. In the days before 9/11 that number was 15 per cent. John Kerry's don't-knows are 12 per cent.

Do the don't-knows really matter? In most elections they would be the battleground for both presidential candidates, especially in what looks like an intensely close-run race this year. For all the talk about motivating the Republican and Democratic base to vote in November, the small pool of undecided voters remains critical to the fortunes of George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. "That's what elections are about," Bush told reporters at the White House as he was winding up his press conference. "They'll take a look at me and my opponent and say, let's see, which one of them can better win the war on terror? Who best can see to it that Iraq emerges as a free society?"

He might as well have added another question: who has a credible exit strategy for bringing the troops home any time soon? This is less a character question than a policy question. It helps explain why Bush devoted the first quarter of his press conference to outlining the timetable toward a newly elected government in December of next year. It also helps explain why Kerry expanded on his clipped comments on Iraq's worsening violence in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Tuesday. That piece detailed his strategy for Iraq, especially the political future of the country.

For the White House, this is not a welcome debate. The current strategy for dealing with Kerry is to question his commitment and resolve. "I look forward ... for the American people to hear, what is a proper use of American power," Bush told reporters. "Do we have an obligation to lead, or should we shirk responsibility?" His aides went one step further last week, suggesting that Kerry was boosting America's enemies. "Right now is a moment of testing in which the enemies of democracy want to test our will," Dan Bartlett, White House director of communications, told CNN. "Senator Kerry seems not to recognize that and wants to complain, as opposed to show resolve in the fact that we're not going to be intimidated by thugs and assassins."

The 2004 election debate is rapidly turning into a contest between the unpatriotic and the incompetent. Where the White House questions Kerry's loyalties, Kerry questions Bush's aptitude. Not content with condemning the administration's foreign policy as inept and reckless, Kerry wrote in the Washington Post: "We have lost lives, time, momentum and credibility." Where Bush has failed most, according to Kerry's aides, is in leading the world to share the burden in Iraq. "We need to bring in more international troops, but we have to show that we are prepared to give the United Nations a leadership role," said one senior Kerry adviser. "But there's no way the U.N. can go from zero to 60 before June 30. If we give them an added level of legitimacy, how can that be unpatriotic?"

The same stark debate is playing itself out at the 9/11 commission. Attorney General John Ashcroft told the commission on Tuesday that "for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies." His basic charge: that the Democrats failed to defend America against Al Qaeda. Ashcroft went so far as to pin the blame for that failure on one Democrat in particular--not Bill Clinton, but Jamie Gorelick, a 9/11 commissioner and former deputy attorney general in the Clinton years. Gorelick, according to Ashcroft, was responsible for "the wall" that separated the intelligence and criminal operations of the FBI.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are suggesting that Ashcroft committed perjury. Thomas Pickard, the acting FBI director in the summer before 9/11, told the commission that Ashcroft did not want to hear his weekly briefings about terror threats to the United States. Ashcroft denied that claim flat out, but he misspoke as he did so: "I did never speak to him saying that I did not want to hear about terrorism," he told the commission. One of them, according to Kerry's former campaign manager Jim Jordan, must be lying (and he's not talking about Pickard).

If this is an election of the blind versus the liars, and the traitors versus the idiots, there is little chance of ever reaching the don't-knows and undecideds who effectively hold the keys to the White House. In reality, Kerry and Bush share similar approaches to Iraq. Both would increase the number of troops there, if necessary. Both would rely on the U.N. to find a political solution among the rival ethnic and sectarian groups. Both are determined to avoid leaving Iraq as a failed state. And before 9/11, the Clinton and Bush administrations shared similar approaches to Al Qaeda. Both wanted to kill Osama bin Laden and take apart his terrorist group, but lacked the wherewithal and willpower to do so.

Does that mean there's nothing to choose between Bush and Kerry? Not exactly. It just means the two sides find it easier to turn each other into caricatures than to answer the really tough questions. Such as: how can we beat Al Qaeda and its spinoffs before they attack us again? And: how long will it take before Iraq is stable enough for the troops to come home? Those questions are the real tests of leadership for Bush and Kerry this summer. They're also the least-likely answers you'll hear before November.