A presidential flop

By Geraldine Sealey

Published August 31, 2004 6:24PM (EDT)

At the "GOP Marketplace" at the New York Hilton, a pro-Bush bazaar of sorts, one entrepreneur sells the inevitable $15 John Kerry flip-flops, actual thong sandals with his "for" positions scribbled on one shoe and his "against" positions on the other. Flip-flipping tchotchkes abound here. There are flip-flop playing cards. Little flip-flop pins for ladies' sweaters. You get the idea. But the delegates having fun with the Kerry "flip-flop" cliche at this convention have run into a snag: Their own candidate, sold everywhere here as "resolute," "steady," and "decisive," can't seem to figure out whether we can win the "war on terror."

To be specific: He said we could win the war on terror before he said we couldn't. And now, today, he said we can win it after all. Flip-flop-flip. Bush's gaffe was prompted by what seems like pretty straight forward questioning from Matt Lauer. Here's the relevant section of the transcript:

Lauer: "You said to me a second ago, one of the things you'll lay out in your vision for the next four years is how to go about winning the war on terror. That phrase strikes me a little bit. Do you really think we can win this war on terror in the next four years?"

President Bush: "I have never said we can win it in four years."

Lauer: "So I'm just saying can we win it? Do you see that?"

President Bush: "I don't think you can win it."

True, there was no TelePrompTer around, just Bush and a guy asking him questions -- but the query was not exactly unexpected or confusing. Not long ago, Bush took a "Winning the war on terror" bus tour. A month ago, he said plainly: "We have a clear vision on how to win the war on terror and bring peace to the world." The convention speakers for last night stressed Bush's leadership in winning the war on terror. Indeed, it is one of the bedrock arguments the Republicans provide for Bush's re-election.

The gaffe had Bush's campaign team scrambling yesterday -- and they continue today -- to explain the president's inconsistency. If John Kerry had make the remark, you can only imagine the GOP response: "Flip-flopper!" "Pessimist!" But the aides just shooed it away as a misunderstanding. Here's an amusing "Who's on First?" exchange from CNN last night, with the anchors pressing White House spokesman Dan Bartlett for an explanation:

"BLITZER: All right. A lot of confusion today over what the president meant when he said that the war on terror is not winnable, you can't exactly win this war. What exactly did he mean by that?"

"BARTLETT: Anybody who has heard this president the last three years has demonstrated that he understands that we can win this war on terror ... When he said we can't win it, what he is saying is that this, it, Al Qaida is not a conventional enemy, not one that's going to sign up to a treaty and say we surrender..."

"WOODRUFF: But when he was asked that almost identical question on CNN just a few weeks ago, the same question, can the war on terror be won, he said absolutely it can be won."

"BARTLETT: That's what I'm saying."

"WOODRUFF: So which is it?"

"BARTLETT: Exactly..."

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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