Trail Mix: Off Message

It was only 10 minutes into what was billed as a relaxed "conversation" about prescription drugs. But after leafing through his talking points, perched on a small black box in front of his chair, the president was clearly struggling. "I'm just about running out of air," he joked, before handing things over to the other four people on stage. "Want me to keep talking?" In less than 40 minutes, the conversation was over. That was about the same time as George W. Bush spent in his motorcade from Kansas City airport to his chit-chat in Liberty, Mo.

After two weeks of hobnobbing with foreign leaders, in Europe and then in Georgia, Monday's event was supposed to mark the president's return to domestic politics--and the campaign trail. Missouri is one of the most hotly contested battleground states in the country, a state Bush won by a mere 3 points in 2000. Polls suggest the race is running just as close this time around. So his event, to sell his policies on prescription-drug benefits to seniors, was in many ways a perfect choice for this swing state: a pocketbook issue that should blunt the Democrats on one of their strongest areas--health care.

John Kerry likes to say that Bush can't talk about his health-care plan because he doesn't have one. But the truth is that Bush does have a health-care plan. He just chooses to spend as little time as possible talking about it, leaving the distinct impression that he doesn't much care for the subject.

It's not just a question of time. During his conversation in Liberty, Bush meant to sell his Medicare policies, starting with this year's drug discount cards and looking ahead to Medicare's drug benefits in two years. There are many ways to frame the president's health-care policies to swing voters. He could talk about seniors' health getting better with the medication they can now afford. He could talk about the financial stress being lifted from their lives--and the lives of their children or grandchildren who take care of them. But he chose instead to focus on something altogether less personal. Speaking of next year's Medicare benefits for preventive medicine, Bush seemed far less interested in the health of seniors than the financial health of the tax base. "For the first time in Medicare's history, we're now going to diagnose problems before they become acute," he said. "That seems to make sense, particularly if you're worried about taxpayers' money. In other words, if you act early to prevent problems from happening in the first place, it's good for the taxpayers."

Of course, presidents should be concerned about the cost of new benefits. But that's hardly the first concern that springs to mind when you're selling such a plan to swing voters. Unless your first concern is the criticism you're facing from your own conservative base, which has been unusually vocal in opposing the expansion of Medicare benefits. On the other side of the political divide, Democrats and advocacy groups have been casting Bush's position on Medicare as overly complex and leaning far too much in favor of big drug companies. Kerry himself says Bush has failed to get the best deal for seniors by preventing the federal government from negotiating discounts directly with the drug companies. (The new discount cards are privately run, and endorsed by Medicare.)

Caught in this political crossfire, Bush sounds less like the personable, straight-talking leader he wants to be--and more like the inside-Washington politico he so frequently mocks. He talked about "Mediscare" as if his audience knew the inside-the-Beltway shorthand for the old political battles over Medicare reform. And he talked of Medicare Plus Choice, as if his audience knew the technical differences between one part of the program and another.

More tellingly, he couldn't confine himself to just Medicare. Speaking for only half the 39-minute event, Bush couldn't resist veering into the war on terror and other assorted parts of his re-election strategy. After a peculiar reference to voluntary work in the community, Bush riffed on the importance of a strong military. "It's incumbent upon America to lead and work with other nations to spread freedom," he said in front of a giant sign emblazoned with the abbreviation RX. While the president may well be committed to a strong military, it was hardly the most obvious way to underscore his return to domestic politics in the American heartland.

Such off-message campaigning helps explain one of the most puzzling poll numbers in the horse race between Bush and Kerry: the question about which candidate understands the problems of people like you. Given their images, you'd think Bush would beat Kerry every time--the outgoing, populist president versus the stiff, patrician senator. But you'd be wrong. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, more than half--57 percent--say Bush does not understand voters' problems. In contrast, more than half--51 percent--say Kerry understands those problems.

Those numbers point to why Kerry is spending the next two weeks on the economy, marking his own return to the domestic arena after a couple of weeks on national security and foreign policy. In the battleground states, 56 percent of voters disapprove of Bush's economic policies, according to the most recent polling by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey. So Kerry's discussion about the economy mostly ignores the recent upturn in economic statistics to focus on what he calls the middle-class squeeze. "It's time to remember a basic truth," Kerry said in a statement, providing a none-too-subtle dig at Bush's focus on foreign affairs. "A stronger America begins right here at home."

To the Bush campaign, this kind of talk is nothing more than gloomy pessimism that turns voters off. But the polls suggest it is Bush--the supposedly Reaganesque optimist--who has failed to catch the voters' mood on the economy. The real test of both candidates this summer is how well they can focus on domestic issues in terms that voters can understand and appreciate. Bush started this week by flying four hours and driving another hour, to talk all of 15 minutes on what should have been a winning message about the cost of living for seniors. He'll need to spend much longer speaking about pocketbook politics if he wants to turn round his approval numbers in time for the fall.