President Bush presented himself for re-election last night as commander-in-chief in a world where the Soviet bear has been replaced by wolves; as an advocate of tax cuts facing an opponent recommending tax increases, and as a leader determined to make the United States "a military superpower, an economic superpower and an export superpower" despite protectionist elements in the Democratic Party.
It was billed as the speech of his lifetime, and his chances of winning an uphill battle against Gov. Bill Clinton depend, in part, on how it will be received in the country.
Despite tough oratory filled with negative innuendo about "family values," the Republican gathering in Houston lacked the verve and confidence of the Democratic convention in New York City last month. There was, instead, a stiff-upper-lip attitude of defiance, combined with faith that the Grand Old Party has some Gritty Old Pros who will know how to push the right hot buttons as Mr. Bush moves into his campaign mode.
In drawing a line in the sand on taxes, Mr. Bush sought to obliterate the notion that he is incapable of taking dramatic action to spur a recovery. He pledged that if elected he would submit tax cuts across the board next January when the new Congress convenes. In contrast, he charged that Governor Clinton favored a $150 billion tax increase and $220 billion in new spending.
The president thus put his credibility on the line. Four years ago, in another acceptance speech before another Republican National Convention, he made his "no new taxes" pledge -- one he later broke in reaching his landmark 1990 budget agreement with the Democratic Congress; the "gridlock Congress" he now calls it, in a reprise on Harry Truman's "do-nothing 80th Congress."
GOP pollsters are all too aware that joblessness and the recession are the prime factors in Mr. Bush's plummet from popularity during the past year. And they are counting on a stimulative tax cut to be more persuasive to recovery-hungry voters than the pump-priming Clinton approach. He badly needs a "bounce" from the Houston convention if he hopes to close in on Mr. Clinton, who now holds a commanding 20-point lead in the polls.
Unless Mr. Bush can convince his fellow citizens that he has a firm vision of where he wants to take the country in the next four years, all the negative campaigning in the world (disavowed or not) will avail him little.
The positive cold buttons, in other words, will be as important as the negative hot buttons. Personal attacks should be replaced by substantive argument. That does not mean Mr. Bush should be reticent about the qualifications he brings to his job, in contrast to Mr. Clinton's lack of foreign policy expertise or service in the military. We are counting on him to make his last campaign an honorable run, in which his vast experience rightly should be his greatest asset.