Throughout this election cycle, political pundits, the candidates themselves, and passionate U of C students alike have all been declaring how vital the November election will be for determining the future course of this generation in American history. Whether repulsed by George W. Bush or in staunch admiration of him, the majority of voters would agree that either he or John Kerry would shape this nation, or at least attempt to do so, in widely different ways as President. Yet for anyone paying attention to the campaign this summer, it would seem that this critical election for the future has boiled down to the whereabouts and activities of the two candidates during a war that occurred 30 years ago.
Through all the hearsay, the accusations and countercharges about memos and medals, what has been lost is a genuine focus on how the policies of President Bush or Senator Kerry would bring together the country with a greater vision that extends beyond campaign sound bites and stump-speech one-liners. And let's face it: this country is in serious need of some coming together and it's going to take some serious leadership to achieve it.
To his credit, President Bush has repeatedly made this idea of inspired leadership a cornerstone of his case for reelection. Of course, a large part of that case is based on his assertion that the flip-flopping John Kerry doesn't have the steadiness of character to put together a coherent vision for America. Indeed, John Kerry, instead of using the Democratic Convention to rally the American people around a greater ideathink of FDR's New Deal or LBJ's Great Societyused the showcase as a four-day reminder that, yes, he had served in Vietnam. And look, Republicans cried, he won't even talk about his Senate record!
Perhaps so, but has George W. Bush himself really acted to realize his own meaningful vision for America? His campaign loves to present the President as a true leader, one forged by the difficulties of his times just as men like FDR and Lincoln overcame years of hardship and war to inspire people and leave a permanent mark on American society. Even before 9/11, during the 2000 election, Bush presented a mantra of "compassionate conservatism." These past four years have been Bush's opportunity to leave that legacy, to rally the nation around this agenda which he argued could, based on a blend of "compassion" and "conservatism," redefine American society for the better.
One particular recent event, almost completely overshadowed by the scandal over the CBS Bush Texas Air National Guard memos, was a perfect indication of how disingenuous and fruitless Bush's vision of compassionate conservatism has become and how far from the ideal of inspired leader this President really is.
In mid-September, the Republican-controlled Congress and White House allowed the 10-year ban on assault rifles, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1994, to lapse without even bringing up its possible renewal for a vote in the House. The ban outlaws 19 types of military-type firearms including AK-47s, UZIs, and the type of weapons used during the 2002 sniper shooting rampage which killed 10 people in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. President Bush said he supported renewing the ban, as one would expect a compassionate conservative to do, but did nothing to see it happen. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, known as the "Hammer" for his effectiveness in influencing his colleagues, suddenly turned feeble, saying merely: "If the president asked me, it'd still be no because we don't have the votes to pass an assault weapons ban and it will expire Monday and that's that."
So much for visionary leadership. President Bush, a man who exerted his political muscle night and day on Congress to pass his tax cuts and for the authorization to invade Iraq, apparently suddenly lost that focused determination of his. Pushing to renew the ban not only would have reaffirmed his commitment to bringing about his greater vision, it would also have given him great credibility with the moderate and swing voters so central to this electionyet still he did nothing. If even this kind of practical, election-year boon in public perception isn't even going to stir him to fulfill his promise for a compassionate America, what kind of weight does his philosophy hold even for him?
The lapse of the assault rifle ban is only the most recent of the Bush Administration's policies that have demonstrated again and again in the past four years that the phrase "compassionate conservatism" is at its heart an oxymoron. President Bush opposed federal funding for future embryonic stem cell research. After speaking to the convention of the NAACP in 2000, when his compassionate conservatism rhetoric was in full gear, he has refused to speak before that same group even once in four years. He has called for the extraordinary step of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Taking a different course on these positions would not have required the President risk becoming a Ted Kennedy liberal. John Kerry too, for example, has come out opposed to gay marriage but, like the majority of Americans, believes it would be going way too far to put into the Constitution a clause specifically designed to deprive a specific set of Americans a basic human right. Instead, George W. Bush could have fulfilled his promise to be a principled leader and a Republican actually capable of compassion.
Republicans can complain about John Kerry's record all they want, but the President's record speaks volumes too about Dubya's so-called leadership. Lucky for George W. Bush, the hoopla of swift boats and Dan Rather still rules the airwaves.