American Enterprise Online | 7.14.04
By Alan W. Dowd
In 1980, Candidate Reagan asked, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Like a laser-guided missile, the question targeted--and connected with--the electorate: homeowners crushed by double-digit inflation, fixed-income pensioners overwhelmed by skyrocketing fuel prices, laid-off factory workers, underemployed twenty-somethings.
So far, Candidate Kerry hasn't played the Reagan card. However, amid a slow-motion economic recovery, bloody occupation of Iraq and air-tight election race, it could be tempting for Kerry to look into the camera during an autumn debate and echo Reagan's "Are you better off today?"
When that moment comes, President Bush should be prepared to recap all that's been accomplished, recast the debate, and remind voters of what's at stake.
He could begin by stating the obvious: "No, we are not better off today than we were four years ago." I know that flies in the face of all the rules of presidential politics, but consider the times. Asking Americans in 2004 if they are better off than they were in 2000 is like asking Americans during the election of 1944--after three years of war and sacrifice--if they were better off than they were in 1940, when the country was at peace.
How can we as a country be better off than we were before September 11, 2001? We have lost 3,000 of our neighbors and hundreds of our defenders. We have lost billions of dollars in wealth and spawned new government behemoths that, while necessary, promise to devour more. And we have lost a priceless sense of security.
Yet we are better off today than we were three years ago, and this is something Bush could easily explain. We are more secure; we are more prepared; and we are more aware of the enemy's goals and our own vulnerabilities than we were on September 11, 2001. We are protecting the homeland with new laws that expose the enemy's hiding places; new relationships that enable federal agencies to cooperate with each other and with frontline forces on Main Street; and new tools like the Department of Homeland Security.
Moreover, unlike before that awful Tuesday morning, America is on the offensive in a global war against terror--a war that others deferred to this administration. With the best of intentions, they tried to fight this enemy in courtrooms rather than on battlefields. They deployed lawyers rather warriors. They used words rather than weapons. But it should never be said that they are to blame for this war. A vicious and evil enemy is responsible for this conflict. Rather than wait for him to strike us at will, the Bush administration has chosen to take the fight to the enemy. And America is winning.
In Afghanistan, US forces have liberated 26 million from the Taliban and their parasitic partners, al-Qaeda. Two-thirds of al-Qaeda's leadership has been killed or captured. Not coincidentally, the number of attacks against American targets is down 65 percent. But al-Qaeda is not yet vanquished. An enemy that had a decade to blend in and build up will not be defeated in 36 months.
In Iraq, a regime that invaded and bombed its neighbors, forged ties to al Qaeda, engaged in the international terror trade, and had a long history of using and experimenting with WMDs has been replaced by a courageous government committed to freedom. Saddam Hussein is now in prison and his former subjects are free. But their country is not yet stable or secure. That will come in time, but only if the American people and their government remain resolute. A quarter-century of brutality cannot be cured overnight.
The President's post-September 11 doctrine makes it clear that terrorism is never legitimate, that those who fund and nurture it are no different than those who engage in it, that America will not permit mass murderers to possess weapons of mass destruction, that we will no longer avert our gaze from gathering threats.
Friend and foe alike have taken notice: America's victories in Iraq and Afghanistan helped convince Libya to surrender its vast WMD programs. With the right amount of political pressure, other regimes will follow Libya's prudent path. And America's resolve has served as the foundation of an international coalition: Some 39 nations are standing with the United States in Iraq. Fully 21 of the European Union's 25 members supported the campaign in Iraq; 24 of NATO's 26 members have troops in Afghanistan or Iraq; and 17 are fighting on both fronts. It's a shame some in this country choose to mock these contributions rather than salute them.
The President made a promise to the American people in those desperate hours after September 11, and he has lived up to it in the intervening months. He should remind them of this during the campaign: "We have not wavered; we have not tired; we have not faltered. And we will not fail."
Reagan's question, though appropriate for its day, doesn't work in this time of war. In 2004, the question is, "Are we better off today than we were on September 11, and who is the best man to serve as commander-in-chief during the next four years of war?"
Whether the American people decide that man is John Kerry or George Bush, terror's war on America will go on--and so must America's war on terror.