The scowl and the smirk bombed in the first debate. The winks and the high-testosterone swagger in the second didn't cut it. Trying in the third and final debate to turn George W. Bush into Goldilocks' oatmeal -- not too hot, not too cold, just right -- Bush's handlers obviously told him to smile, be optimistic, folksy, likable, and generally do his best Ronald Reagan impersonation.
And so during almost every answer, what was supposed to be a warm, confident smile was plastered over Bush's face. His answers to Bob Schieffer's questions, too, were right out of the tried and true Reagan playbook. Constantly bash your opponent for being a (gasp!) liberal -- worse, an "out of the mainstream" liberal. Avoid substantive discussion of policy issues -- those are for Massachusetts pointy-heads who secretly believe in World Government. (Cue sound of black helicopters.) Repeat charges about a Kerry Global Test that will result in the U.S. being instantly swarmed over by swarthy evildoers in turbans wielding scimitars. Talk vaguely, yet passionately, about "values" and religion. And when confronted with the actual consequences of, say, tax cuts for the mega-rich that hurt the middle class, say that you just want to get the government off people's backs.
And all the time, keep smiling. During his concluding statement, Bush even tried to resurrect that old morning-in-America feeling, with a homey reference to Texas sunrises.
The act flopped. Bush wanted to come across like Reagan, but he looked more like a beauty queen at the end of the Macy's parade -- the forced smile, the mechanical wave, the worn-out "charm." Bush lacks the expansiveness, the self-assurance of Reagan. His "confidence" felt like it was painted on by Karl Rove. In-over-his-headness flashed from him like a Vegas sign. He was a mere facade, a Potemkin Village of Reagan-ness. And since even Reagan himself was little more than a high-grade imitation of "Ronald Reagan," a mythical John Wayne-like entity, watching Bush was like trying to warm yourself with a picture of a picture of a fire.
And yet Bush is supposedly the guy with the common touch, the Joe Sixpak who connects with average Americans. An insta-poll on CNN found that Kerry won decisively, but that most viewers found Bush more "likable." Right-wing talking head Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC, "Debating coaches from Harvard or Yale will say that Kerry won, but the average working men are all going to look at the screen and say I relate more to that George Bush guy. The only question is can I afford to vote for him?" (Although by the end of the evening, regular old Joe, sitting for some reason in a suspiciously tony-looking, book-lined study somewhere, seemed to have lost his pro-Bush gumption, resigning himself to Kerry's triple-crown debate wins and his presidential stature.)
I just don't get the Bush as beer-drinking buddy thing (even if he still drank beer). It isn't like John Kerry is Mr. Personality. He's a bit of a stiff. But you sense that behind his wonky, methodical exterior that he cares and that he's actually engaged with issues -- which, after all, is what we hire our politicians to do, not be incoherent cheerleaders for anti-government zealotry. Bush, presiding over a deeply divided country, mired in a disastrous war that he misled us into, offers only a bad Reagan imitation. Which could, in fact, describe his entire presidency.
If Bush somehow pulls it off in November, it'll be for the reasons Thomas Frank outlines in his new book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Frank explains how the American working class has been seduced into voting against its own economic interest by Republican appeals to cultural issues that stir primordial passions. Your wages going down? Rage at queers. No health care? Wash yourself in the blood of the Lamb! Meaningless war waged under false pretenses got you down? Shut down those evil abortionists!
It's the ultimate triumph of resentment over rationality, of superficial cultural signifiers over actual issues. Amped up by the propaganda geniuses at Fox News, it isn't surprising that it works. But what is surprising is that it works with Bush as its pitchman.
If America will buy a used ideology from this guy, it'll buy anything.