A long time ago last week, the Vice President of the United States said that if John Kerry is elected President "the danger is that we'll get hit again" by terrorists. It was an outrageous statement, which exposed the rampaging hubris of the Republican Party these days--and it should have been a big story. But the Cheney flap disappeared within 24 hours, in a week that exploded a month's worth of political bombshells. A new book by the professional sensationalist Kitty Kelley accused George Bush of using cocaine at Camp David when his father was President. CBS News revealed documents that indicated Bush had disobeyed orders, avoided service and received "sugar-coated" treatment when his performance was evaluated in the National Guard. And then, within hours, both stories were knocked down--a source for the cocaine story recanted, and some conservative bloggers charged the documents were forgeries. By week's end, the mudslinging had been successfully muddled: the controversy was now about the stories, not the President.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Russia was recovering from a horrific terrorist attack that left at least 338 dead--mostly children--which put an exclamation point on the President's claim that we are fighting a global war against terrorism. At the same time, though, the U.S. military acknowledged the sobering fact that there were now "no-go" zones in Iraq, areas the U.S. had ceded to the terrorists--much of the so-called Sunni triangle, for example--which put a question mark on the President's claim that he was aggressively fighting that war. At the end of all that, the President's post-convention bounce had settled into a solid lead.
Democrats were perplexed, depressed and awestruck. How could Cheney get away with saying, in effect, that a vote for Kerry was a vote for terrorism? More to the point, how could Bush get away with, well, everything: a misspent youth, a lifetime of insider trading on the family name, a misfought war, a misleading inference that the invasion of Iraq had some vague relevance to 9/11, a presidency marked by rampant corporate cronyism at home and abroad? "If we can't beat this guy, with this record ..." a prominent Democrat said to me. He was unable to finish the sentence.
There are all sorts of theories for Bush's recent success. The Republicans are brilliant and brazen demolition experts. The Democrats play hardball at the peewee-league level. Kerry is Dukakis, after all--deadly dull, slow to respond, trapped in Democratic banality: he actually said he was for "good jobs at good wages" last week. All of which are more or less true, but peripheral. The real story is quite simple. Bush seems to believe what he says and Kerry doesn't quite.
That is not to say that the things Bush believes are true. The war in Iraq was not a necessity. It is more likely to result in regional chaos than in the "benign domino effect" of regional democracy promised by neoconservatives. But Bush truly believes--and these are admirable beliefs--in the power of "freedom" and the evil of Islamist radicalism. He is secure enough to acknowledge the possibility that he might be proved wrong. Two weeks ago, he told TIME that history would be the judge of his policies--it would take decades to sort it all out--but he was confident about the choices he had made.