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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Bush campaign launch stumbles

LOS ANGELES

OBVIOUSLY, President Bush planned it all this way.

 

For the week when his reelection campaign was launched with the most immense TV advertising campaign ever, the idea was to have his administration top it all off with an announcement that there was almost no job growth last month.

You can also just imagine the meetings during which his advisers plotted to ignite a controversy over how tasteless it would be to use images of the destruction and death from 9/11 as reelection props. Another round of mass murder in Iraq was icing on the cake.

The grand themes of his campaign rollout were supposed to be trust, a return to prosperity, security, and reassurance.

Feeling better already?

Instead, the premiere of the Bush reelection was a reminder that credibility is at the core of the president's problems -- an issue that was established with a thud at the beginning of the year with David Kay's crushing report on the absence of the weapons that we were assured were in Iraq keeps gathering power.

I have lost track of the number of job increase predictions -- not forecasts or projections, but assurances -- Bush has made since he took office, but his assertions about the strength of the economy are bordering on the comical.

The February report from the Labor Department that all of 21,000 jobs were created last month -- less than one per precinct -- might be termed somewhat less glowing than the anticipated figure of roughly 125,000. Even that figure is less than half what would have to be generated to reach the predicted increase of more than 2.5 million jobs that was in Bush's annual report just last month until it was decided that for political reasons the president would disavow his own prediction before the ink was even dry on the document.

For those who are keeping score, that's fewer than 150,000 so far this year, only about 350,000 short of what even a moderate recovery should be producing.

Much worse for those of us who live off our paychecks was the additional news that average hourly earnings were up another whopping 3 cents last month. In case no one in the White House has noticed, virtually flat earnings are being gutted by widespread increase in the cost of necessities. Health care premiums continue to rise at double-digit annual rates, along with co-payments and deductibles, while gasoline prices are spiking with no relief in sight. Three cents doesn't help much.

It is no accident that family debt is skyrocketing at rates not seen in nearly a generation, that consumer confidence has stopped increasing, and that the opinion polls (still mostly meaningless about the contest with John Kerry) reflect a growing sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

While the president was raising money out here to pay for his TV ads, he undercut his credibility further with a fascinatingly false assertion about his infamous tax cuts. "My opponent has plans for those tax cuts," he told one campaign luncheon. "He wants to take them away."

As usual, Bush made his point by trotting out "examples" of the wonders the tax cuts have produced. Unfortunately, they were once again examples of the kind of tax cuts John Kerry supports and Democrats made happen in the first place -- increases in the child tax credit, the 10 percent rate on low incomes, and the relief from the marriage penalty.

Two of the happy beneficiaries last week -- both predictably Latino -- were (also predictably) joyous at saving $3,100 and $3,400 via tax breaks that no Democrat would repeal. Slowly, the rest of America is learning that John Kerry wants to raise his own and George Bush's taxes, not the taxes paid by something like 98 percent of the country.

In the midst of a broiling controversy, the president tried to steer clear of his decision to make advertising hay out of the images of 9/11. Naturally, there were opinions of all kinds from not only the survivors of victims but the politicians who were involved in the attacks. What was neglected were three fairly simple points: the controversy undercut the supposedly positive message; the decision to use 9/11 in this fashion barely masked the equally revealing decision to stay away from Iraq as an advertising theme; and the use of 9/11 is itself a credibility issue because Bush has always said he would never do something so crass.

This remains as competitive a campaign as any political junkie could wish for, but the launch of Bush's effort is a reminder that money is not the same as brains, and that Bush is as capable as Kerry was last year of getting off to a flat start.

"God loves you, and I love you," the president said during a particularly fatuous promotion of his efforts to give government money to church groups that discriminate in their hiring. "And you can count on both of us as a powerful message that people who wonder about the future can hear."

Huh?

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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