Pin 'stubborn' tail on Bush

Hopeful Democrats have been saying for the past month that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry is a “strong closer.”

Yes, he may have frittered away a slight lead in August, but just remember how Howard Dean and William Weld once seemed to have him on the ropes, goes the argument. He surged to a last-minute victory in those campaigns.

In less than weeks, we’ll learn if he really is the John Elway of politics, able to consistently run a two-minute drill that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.

Kerry launched his comeback campaign with an impressive speech at New York University this week. He finally confronted President Bush head-on with a litany of “wrong decisions” in Iraq. The president and his team told us we’d be greeted as liberators, not to worry about looting, we had plenty of troops to secure the country, our CIA-funded exiles would be able leaders and we’d have a well-trained civil service and security force in place in no time. “They were wrong” on all counts, Kerry said. And he’s right. Even leading Republicans criticize the administration for a flawed strategy and an inept performance in Iraq.

Most Americans have come to believe, on some level, that we were misled by the administration. The reasons we were given for invading Iraq have turned out to be something between mistakes in judgment and outright lies.

Many voters are uncomfortable with the administration’s ability to bring this adventure to a successful conclusion.

But most Americans still cling to the belief that Bush is the one they trust to wage the war on terrorism. The president and his team have made the case that he has a firm-jawed commitment and Kerry is a confused, contradictory chameleon. Even if voters are not comfortable with Bush’s conduct of the war on terrorism or his decision to invade Iraq, they give him good marks for consistency.

Kerry began to chip away at that assumption this week, but he has still failed to make the fundamental points that could take the “steadfast” advantage away from Bush. Kerry’s message should be that Bush is stubborn and dangerous. A few weeks ago, when asked by the press what mistakes his administration had made, the president couldn’t come up with a single one. A thousand dead American soldiers in Iraq, a stagnant economy, America’s reputation in tatters around the world, the highest unemployment rate in generations and our president could not come up with a single mistake he or his administration has made.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of America’s iconic wartime leaders, famously said, “Do something. If it doesn’t work, then try something else.” Bush doesn’t get that. He is committed to doing the same thing again and again despite evidence that it is not working. Dr. Phil might suggest that kind of behavior is typical of a serious personality disorder. The Kerry campaign doesn’t want to go that far, but it must make this a character issue in order to win. If you cannot recognize and accept mistakes, you are doomed to live with their consequences. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, stubbornness in the pursuit of failed policies is no virtue.

Several Democratic strategists have suggested to the Kerry campaign that it confront Bush directly on this issue, turning the argument back on the president. “If you won’t admit a mistake, you can’t learn from it and you can’t fix it.” The message, they say, should be that Bush is far beyond being steadfast. His stubborn refusal to admit that we need to change policies in Iraq and here at home is simply bull-headed and downright dangerous.

Kerry is trying to make the case that his commitment to defending America against terrorism is as strong as anyone’s, including the president’s. But he must now connect the dots. Commitment plus bull-headed stubbornness got us into the Iraq quagmire. Commitment plus flexibility can get us out. Bush’s cocky swagger won’t make America safer.

In fact, it has put us at great risk. His policies have turned Iraq into a breeding ground for terrorism. More of the same won’t get us out of this mess. A pragmatic, flexible patriotism just might be able to accomplish that goal.

If the Kerry campaign can deliver that message with conviction over the next six weeks, we could see the strong close Democrats hope for. If not, we’ll be “staying the course” with Bush for another four years.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com