By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The New York Times
July 10, 2004
Since President Bush hasn't called me to ask how he can get re-elected, I'm afraid this will be gratuitous advice. But what the heck. . . .
Now that John Kerry has found a running mate, Mr. President, you need to lose one. Dick Cheney has to fake chest pains.
The first time he begs to be removed from the ticket, you should show your loyalty and refuse. Only after he has sorrowfully insisted absolutely insisted! on retiring should you reluctantly consent. (This should happen well before the Republican convention so it doesn't look too desperate or staged.)
Four years ago, Mr. Cheney brought national security credentials and gravitas to your ticket. But this November, he'll remind swing voters of the Iraq mess, intelligence-fixing and the leak of the name of the glamour spy, Valerie Plame. Not to mention Halliburton's overcharging.
Mr. President, many voters find you likable and a better bet on national security than Mr. Kerry as they say, Mr. Kerry looks French but they wake up at night wondering whether you're actually a hard-line, mistake-prone ideologue. And that's the problem with Mr. Cheney: the first thought swing voters have when they see the vice president is "hard-line, mistake-prone ideologue."
So you need a running mate who revives the 2000 image of you as a compassionate conservative. That's Colin Powell, if he and Alma would do it.
Mr. Powell reassures swing voters because he's not an ideologue, and he would improve your standing among black voters. In 2000 you won only 8 percent of the black vote, but you could raise that to 25 percent or more with Powell.
If Powell won't do it, there's Rudy Giuliani. He's strong on national security and crime, but soft on abortion, which is what you need with swing voters. Then there's John McCain; that choice would allow you to win at least the first battle with Mr. Kerry.
As for issues, Mr. President, you need some. The main election themes now are Iraq and the economy, neither of which is shaping up in your favor. You need a good wedge issue, one that can be used to paint John Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal. The trick is to turn the election focus so it's about values, not issues.
The Confederate flag issue worked wonders in Southern battleground states in the past and could perhaps be revived. Gay marriage is a possibility nationally, although you'll have to approach it carefully. Most voters are against gay marriage, but they're also against anti-gay bigotry.
The best potential wedge is the Ten Commandments, and if you boldly seize this issue, you can win in November. You could encourage local governments to put up versions of the Ten Commandments in offices in the South and Midwest, and then paint Mr. Kerry as anti-God if he demurs.
Frankly, if your dad could link Michael Dukakis to Willie Horton in television ads, imagine how much more effective it would be to run TV spots linking John Kerry and Satan!
Oh, and there's an October surprise you can spring that will almost guarantee a victory. After you've taken Mr. Powell as your running mate and he's won plaudits around the country, announce a week before the election that you're taking time off from the campaign on doctor's orders because your own heart has been under strain. That way, you'll get an extra week's vacation on your ranch and, if voters believe it, another term in office.
(For the president's eyes only: Mr. President, you're probably wondering why you should take advice from a columnist who criticizes many of your policies. You may even imagine that I'm an ardent Kerry supporter. But look at it this way: I want to be read, and if Mr. Kerry wins, he'll adopt boring, reasonable positions, and I'll be stuck with nuanced analyses that even my mother won't read. In contrast, you may not always be great for this country, but you're terrific for sputtering pundits.)
(For my regular readers only: Don't feel betrayed by this column. I'm not actually being as helpful to the president as you may think. Mr. Bush has shown that he pays close attention to all my advice because he consistently does precisely the opposite. So Mr. Cheney is now guaranteed a spot on the ticket.)