Even now, the White House is being redecorated for President Bush's second term -- or at least one room, the Lincoln Bedroom. The famous long bed will remain; so will the original Emancipation Proclamation in its glass case. But dominating the room, above the bed, will be a large carved crown from which will flow, ceiling to floor, royal purple satin drapes. The crown has been sent to be gilded with gold in anticipation of Bush's triumphant return from his campaign.
Bush began the debates with John Kerry ahead in the polls. After he grimaced his way through his talking points in the first debate, he corrected himself by maintaining strict self-control of his facial muscles in the second debate. Then after he channeled his boiling emotions into hotheaded belligerence, he recast himself for the third debate with fixed grins whatever the gray or grim subject. It was his best performance, the best he could do, and not good enough.
In the first debate, Bush defended his rigid certainty. In the second, he declined the opportunity to admit error and chose to blame others: "Now, you asked what mistakes. I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them. I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV." Perhaps he had in mind his former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, who testified that the president blithely ignored terrorism before Sept. 11. But perhaps he was thinking of the director of his faith-based initiative. John DiIulio, from Princeton, the most distinguished man of ideas to join his administration, who said, after resigning, "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." Or perhaps he meant Paul O'Neill, his treasury secretary and a former corporate executive, who, after he was forced out, wrote that the president with his Cabinet was "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people." Or perhaps Bush was thinking of his top White House economic advisor, Lawrence Lindsey, who was fired after he publicly stated that the Iraq war would cost $200 billion.
The final debate was focused on Bush's weak point, the home front, where he lagged on every issue. On the debate's eve, polls revealed that voters want a change in direction, a new president, but remain tentative about Kerry. On that soft ice, despite the dead heat, the incumbent could prevail by asserting his mastery.
But Bush's own story is only of the "war president." As he tells it, Sept. 11 leads him in a straight line to invade Iraq, and "freedom is on the march." True or not, it is a simple story that many can follow and repeat. But his narrative of the "homeland president" is a mélange of avoidances and denials. Chronology is crucified, cause and effect stood on their heads. Under his aegis, nearly 1 million jobs have been lost, the worst record since the Great Depression; he has squandered the largest federal surplus and created the largest deficit; more than 4.5 million have lost their health insurance, and more than 45 million are uncovered; and so it goes.
In Bush's telling, for example, his regressive tax, source of much of the deficit, passed before Sept. 11, was enacted afterward. In the debate, he mentioned as little as possible about his Medicare prescription drug bill, despised by most of the elderly, who will pay more -- a bill approved only because the Medicare actuary who analyzed the proposal's cost was threatened with being fired if he told Congress the true number beforehand. (The twisting of information and intimidation surrounding the Medicare bill are remarkably congruent with the distortions and coercion that occurred in the rush to the Iraq war.)
At every turn, Bush attempted to change the subject to his fictional version of his education bill, No Child Left Behind. Asked by the moderator about whether he favored an increase in the minimum wage, he elided the question to hail his achievement on education, but never responded to Kerry's factual addition that Bush had failed to secure the $28 billion needed to implement the measure. Nor did Bush observe that many states have filed suits in federal courts against No Child Left Behind because of the absence of funding. Nor did he acknowledge that the original sponsor of the bill was none other than Sen. Ted Kennedy. Instead, he used Kennedy as a straw man. "You know, there's a mainstream in American politics, and you [Kerry] sit right on the far left bank," the president charged. "As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."
Kerry's performance, consistent with his previous ones, disclosed his steadiness, deep knowledge of policy and toughness, his presidential manner a refutation of the negative image projected by the Bush campaign of him as flip-flopper. He, too, raised the icon of Kennedy -- John F. Kennedy -- to establish his credentials on Bush's supposed high ground, the cardinal virtues of faith. After Bush's skirting the question of whether he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would uphold Roe vs. Wade, the decision legalizing abortion, Kerry defended women's right to choose as a "constitutional right," defended gay rights as a basic right and passionately defended the minimum wage as a "fundamental right." And then he said: "I grew up a Catholic. I was an altar boy. I know that throughout my life this has made a difference to me. And as President Kennedy said when he ran for president, he said, 'I'm not running to be a Catholic president. I'm running to be a president who happens to be Catholic.' My faith affects everything that I do, in truth. There's a great passage of the Bible that says, 'What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead.'"
What would Jesus do? Kerry was right with Jesus. But what would Lincoln do? Kerry was also right with Father Abraham.
Haunted by his father's defeat, Bush has been a case study in reaction formation. He marched to Baghdad, ensured he had no enemy to his right and cut taxes regardless of the deficit. In the last debate, he sputtered about "a liberal senator from Massachusetts," repeating attack lines from his father's old campaign, coming full circle in the restoration of the gilded crown.