YOU CAN always try putting lipstick on a pig, as President Bush did last night, but the result is rarely helpful, much less transforming. Promises of tax reform that contain not a syllable of specifics, the confusion (usually attributed to liberals) between legislation and results on education and prescription drug costs, the rehash of a vague, four-year-old idea for partially privatizing the Social Security system without paying for it -- these were the main lipstick ingredients in a familiar political response to a familiar political problem.
Gerald Ford faced it 28 years ago, Jimmy Carter faced it 24 years ago, and Bush's dad faced it a dozen years ago. Incumbents in trouble are in trouble because of the condition of the country. Those presidents who survive -- Harry Truman 56 years ago comes to mind -- do so because they face these conditions squarely, push real agendas, and then occupy the high ground from which they contest opponents.
For now, Bush is in the former category. In a silly attempt to hint that there is more to his "agenda" than met the ear last night, Bush directed voters to his website, Georgewbush.com, where no such amplification on any major issue is in fact available. Bush's virtual neglect of the perilous condition of the country's anemic economy may have been predictable but it was still appalling.
That left Bush with but two cards to play, the same ones played all week here and the same ones played all year by his campaign -- war and John Kerry. Bush's first approach to politicizing war has been to link the struggle against terrorism with the quagmire in Iraq, a link that no responsible body that has examined the situation -- the 9/11 commission included -- has ever found. His second approach is to pretend that this grand war only he can lead began on Sept. 11 and ended on the morning of the invasion of Iraq. And his third is to help sell the idea that Kerry is not fit for the office he seeks and is borderline disloyal.
This last canard is what brought Kerry out of the shadows late last night, in an unprecedented counterattack during the same news cycle against a nominee's acceptance speech. Kerry's assertion that Bush is up to his eyeballs in a smearing campaign, his raising of Bush's and Cheney's selfish evasions of combat as young men, his claim that this is the real Bush campaign -- these are rough words, and the course of the campaign may hinge on the reaction to them.
Bush had it coming.
Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is email@example.com.