18 September 2004
This has been one of the costliest weeks for US troops in Iraq since the conflict began. Hopes that the largely theoretical handover of sovereignty might stem the violence have faded. A US intelligence report has warned of the real prospect of civil war before the year is out. Amazingly, though, none of this seems to be reflected in the state of the US election campaign. With only six weeks remaining before the vote, the Bush campaign sails serenely on. "Freedom," the President told massed rallies this week, in a glancing reference to Iraq, "is on the march".
If one man's anarchy were another man's freedom, that might, just, be one way of putting it. Yet Mr Bush's ability to ignore brutal reality while brazenly preserving an appearance of total conviction has been one of the hallmarks of the 2004 campaign. The deteriorating security situation in Iraq, where more than 1,000 US soldiers have now been killed in a war that Mr Bush chose to fight, is only the most egregious example.
In three-and-a-half years, Mr Bush has managed to convert a record budget surplus into a record deficit, with worse in prospect. He is one of the few presidents of recent times to have presided over a net loss of jobs. The promised economic recovery is hardly under way, despite the supposedly energising tax cuts he railroaded through Congress. The number of Americans without health insurance has risen on his watch; the gap between rich and poor has grown. The compassionate conservatism of his campaign four years ago has never materialised.
Here, surely, are indictments enough to give any half-capable challenger a sporting chance. John Kerry, though, has so far failed to capitalise on any of the President's manifest failures. Worse, the Bush campaign has managed to turn even Mr Kerry's signal advantage - his Vietnam war record - into a liability. And now the Democrat camp's half-hearted sortie into Bush-style negative campaigning - documents purporting to confirm Mr Bush's questionable commitment to his military service in the Texas Air National Guard - have been exposed as forgeries and turned against Mr Kerry. According to one recent poll, Mr Bush has amassed a 14-point lead.
This may be an excessively pessimistic view of Mr Kerry's prospects; other polls are more circumspect and the contest is not over. The sad reality is, though, that Mr Kerry has proved a disappointing campaigner and has much ground to make up. He has simply not run as though he really wants to win and believes that he can. Would-be Democrat voters, for all their early zeal to win back the White House, are losing faith.
For the past three, key, months, Mr Bush has campaigned as though the multiple failures of his presidency, starting with Iraq, were either not happening or not his responsibility. It says much about the lacklustre quality of Mr Kerry's operation and the credulity of America's security-preoccupied voters, that he has been able to get away with it. Now, rather late in the day, Mr Kerry is recruiting some experienced attack-dogs to his team. He needs to let them off the leash.