Mr. Bush's Acceptance Speech

Editorial

The New York Times

September 3, 2004

When President Bush accepted his party's nomination last night, he energetically presented himself as the man who could keep America safe in a time of international terrorism. His handlers believe that is the key to his re-election. But if Mr. Bush intends to have a second term, he needs to do something more - particularly if he hopes to win by more than 500 votes this time. The president needs to speak to the large number of moderate voters who feel that things have been going in the wrong direction over the last four years, and convince them that he has the capacity to learn from mistakes and do better. On that count, his acceptance speech fell short.

Despite the enormous changes the United States has undergone since the last election, from terror attacks to recession, Mr. Bush has been sticking resolutely to the priorities he brought into the office in 2001. He won his tax cuts and his education initiative. American foreign policy managed to wind up focused on the same country on which Mr. Bush and his advisers had fixated from the beginning.

Each of those policies has cost the nation dearly: the tax cuts have exploded the budget deficit, Mr. Bush has failed to finance his education programs adequately, and the war in Iraq has been fumbled from the day Baghdad fell. Nobody expected the president to admit that any of his initiatives had turned out to be less than smashing successes, but wavering voters might have been buoyed by at least a hint that the administration realizes that the course needs adjustment.

Instead, the president presented troubled, half-finished initiatives like his prescription drug plan as fully completed tasks, just as he presented the dangerous and chaotic situation in Iraq as a picture of triumphant foreign policy on a par with the Marshall Plan. He tossed out a combination of extremely vague concepts - like creating an ownership society - along with small-bore ideas like additional college scholarships. The combination of minor thoughts and squishy generalities was typical of John Kerry's convention speech as well. But Mr. Bush's contribution doesn't raise many hopes for the level of campaign discussion to come.

The president, who dropped his laudable attempt to begin desperately needed immigration reform as soon as he ran into political resistance, gave the idea not a mention last night. There was no hint that he realizes his "uniter, not a divider" vow ran aground on the administration's insistence on right-wing judicial nominees and inflexibility on social issues like stem cell research.

There was nothing in the speech last night that suggested a new era of frankness from the White House, or hope that any of those fundamental problems would be approached with anything but the "my way or the highway" attitude Mr. Bush has used on issues like tax cuts and Iraq.

If Mr. Bush is rigid in his policies, he is remarkably flexible in marketing them. Once again, the Republican convention has led with its left, with a parade of prime-time speakers from what might be called the far moderate side of the party. Aside from a bizarre and nasty assault on Mr. Kerry by Senator Zell Miller, a registered Democrat, the tough talk was left mainly to the vice president.

It was depressing to hear Dick Cheney, who spoke on Wednesday night, repeat his crowd-pleasing snipe against Senator Kerry for calling for "a more sensitive war on terror." It was a phony criticism, given that Mr. Bush has used almost identical language in the past. But, worse, it signaled that Mr. Cheney and the administration's other hit men will spend the next two months trying to sell their failed approach to foreign policy, and encouraging Americans to believe that anyone who acknowledges that the United States needs to take a more patient and humble approach to the world is in league with the girlie men.