About a year ago, John Kerry struck me as the strongest potential challenger to President Bush. He was a Vietnam veteran, distinguished senator and levelheaded. He shared initials with another JFK and looked like a president. With Kerry, there were no surprises. He was the Democrat’s Democrat, and a safe choice to be the nominee. Ã¿
I consequently hoped for Kerry’s political demise. Apparently, so did the media. They wrote the candidate off as a stiff board with expensive hair cuts and the resemblance of Lurch from The Addams Family. After all, John Kerry just wouldn’t produce the drama, juicy details and scandalous stories the media demand. So, they looked elsewhere for a presidential candidate.Ã¿
On the rebound after a tough breakup with John McCain, the media began to romance Howard Dean. And so did Republicans across the country. For different reasons, of course. The media saw Dean as a fiery outsider who would change the Democratic Party and inspire progressive activism. Republicans saw Dean as a sure loser.Ã¿
I’m repeating a story you already know. By some accounts, it was the political story of 2003. While a Bush landslide was the dream of Republicans, the media cooperated by pushing the Dean campaign at lightning speed. It was a dangerous game of chicken careening toward political Armageddon in November 2004.Ã¿
Sadly for some Republicans, it now looks like that date with destiny may never come to be. The media, along with Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, caught on to the Republicans’ devious dreams and stopped the Dean surge in its tracks.Ã¿
For the media, Dean was too successful, too strong in the polls and too close to winning the nomination. For Democrats, Dean was too dangerous. Enter John Kerry.Ã¿
Two primaries later, Howard Dean, liberator of disaffected Democrats everywhere, is stuck somewhere in the middle of the pack. His train lost its steam and is now creeping toward a horribly anticlimactic stop. I’m not going to make the mistake of prematurely writing the Dean campaign’s obituary. He may indeed pull this thing off. But it is undeniable that his campaign took a serious blow, broke its stride and lost its confidence. Ã¿
Tragic? No. I was wrong to happily anticipate a Bush landslide over Dean. Where I went wrong was not in its probability (Dean’s primal scream in Iowa reassured me of that) but on its merits. Just as Democrats binged on Howard Dean, so did Republicans like me. We salivated at the prospect of his losing 40 states. Why? Because our partisanship took precedence over our beliefs in good government. Ã¿
With Dean as his opponent, Bush would be put in the situation to effectively take his conservative base for granted. After all, conservatives would never vote for Howard Dean, who campaigns on his desire to repeal all of the tax cuts. Instead, conservatives would be marginalized. Ã¿
In some regards, it is good that President Bush is as much a pragmatist as an ideologue. This is an important quality of a president and I do not discount it. Yet a mission to Mars does not fit into the equation. The bloated agriculture bill, expensive Medicare plan and across-the-board spending increases all fly in the face of fiscal conservatism. They are a result of typical congressional behavior and a chief executive who has yet to use his veto power. Whatever happened to voluntary private accounts for Social Security?Ã¿
When faced with a serious challenger, however, President Bush will rely heavily on his conservative base. He will no longer waste time catering to the Left in an impossible effort to win its favor. President Bush will need to convince people to vote for him, not appease them by ceding certain values. After all, the goal is not to win more votes for the sake of winning more votes. It is to win the battle of ideas, ideology and beliefs. Ã¿
This is why President Bush doesn’t need a landslide. He needs a tough race. He needs to stay on his toes, consolidate his base and work hard. I don’t want to trip him up. I want to see him succeed when faced with a legitimate challenge. There is no doubt in my mind that President Bush is at his best when faced with a challenge.
And that is why conservatives have not lost confidence in President Bush. Eighty-six percent of Republicans vigorously support President Bush, and that number will jump 10 points by Election Day. He is a strong leader who has confidently steered America through some tough times. The president has proved his mettle through his unwavering commitment to defeat terrorism abroad and empower the tax payer at home.
I look forward to a Bush-Kerry match-up because I want President Bush to win with a mandate, not by default.