Why is Bush doing so well when his record is so poor? Maybe it has something to do with psychology and storylines.
The Bush team promised in the spring that they would “define” Kerry early in the race. And they have. Their accusation that he flip-flops has been effective. Note that Bush hasn’t personally called Kerry a liar. Only someone who is for all intents and purposes anonymous can make that charge about a public figure. When you call someone a liar in private life, you are announcing that you will have nothing more to do with him. When you call someone a liar in public life—well, really, the next thing you’re supposed to do is make an appointment to meet at dawn in Weehawken. Since for the last century and half, such appointments have not been possible, a faint tinge of cowardice lingers over any major figure who accuses another of lying. Since you don’t risk death, it isn’t a gentlemanly thing to say.
To call someone a flip-flopper, on the other hand, does not besmirch his honor yet is directly relevant to his leadership ability. In other words, a succesful definition of the opponent has to sound mild.
The flip-flopping charge also stakes out an important binary. (Here we shall play at being Levi-Strauss and parse the myths into their elements accordingly.)
As a subsidiary, it further establishes:
intellectual, intelligent straightforward, simple-minded
It chagrins intellectuals to think that Bush prospers by not being one, but it’s the case. One of the most appealing things about him is what you might call his Prince Hal storyline. He never won a Rhodes scholarship, succeeded at business, or earned a Purple Heart. To a Painite or an egalitarian, this is an outrage. But it isn’t to most people. It means that there is nothing about Bush to envy except what is beyond his control: his birth and his personality. You are free to identify with his victories without feeling any need to reproach yourself for not having worked as hard as he did or contributed as much as he did. He drank away his youth, and look where he is now. Born under the right constellation, anyone could be him.
There is something hollow about this storyline. It depends for sustenance on continual ascent. And as soon as he becomes king, Prince Hal invades another country on a slight pretext. He is nonetheless a hero. His story is stirring. To take it in the best light, it suggests that there is a potential greatness in everyone, no matter how poor the choices they have made in the past. The audience forgives Hal even the cruelty of his disavowal of his youthful drinking partners. They are willing to see the disavowal as a sign of maturity, even though it is hard to reconcile the harshness of it with the bantering charm that Hal showed earlier in the play.
It will not win Democrats any percentage points, therefore, to suggest that Bush is not intellectual and was born to privilege, or to prove that when young he indulged in debauchery and shirked his duties. All those things are true of Prince Hal, yet he remains beloved. The Prince Hal storyline will be dislodged not by criticism but by a stronger storyline.
Here are some more binaries that Kerry could still lay claim to:
open to communication sealed off
But it won’t do to paint Kerry as nurturing and communicative, because these traits might easily be conflated with weakness. And to call Bush a hypocrite is too much like calling him a liar; worse, it has a little color of emotionality, which might seem less than virile. Looking over the list, however, it does seem that a style of manhood is what’s at stake. Kerry has taken lately to calling Bush “wrong,” but this reinforces the notion that Bush is secure in his decisions. What if the criticism were phrased more gently, less as a matter of personal virtue than of leadership qualities?
To pull it off, you’d have to find a turn of phrase for Bush’s immaturity that was as vernacular and as negative in connotation as “flip-flopping.”