The tilt factor


The headlines this week, of course, are the results of the primaries. But there still lurks behind the headlines the fascinating juxtaposition of two events that serve to remind us of the sort of unexpected events that can tilt and redefine a political contest.

One was Howard Dean’s obvious gaffe in exposing a manic side of his personality that undercut the image of a calm, deliberate candidate substantially in the lead. That lead disappeared in his unexpected third-place showing in Iowa. His wild performance on that Iowa caucus night has cost him dearly in a race he had dominated for so many months. The New Hampshire results will exacerbate the media debate about whether he can still recover in the many primaries yet to come.

The other gaffe was of a far more subtle and simultaneously more significant nature. It was President Bush’s failure to make effective use of one of the huge advantages that incumbent presidents have in a re-election campaign. That advantage is the "bully pulpit," as Theodore Roosevelt called it. When a president speaks, he speaks with the authority and majesty of the White House. Surely President Bush and his advisers tried to mold his State of the Union address to win more converts among undecided voters and solidify his popularity in his Republican ranks.

But it appears that they failed. The first poll after the address shook the White House – the president’s popularity was slipping. But the next poll, by Newsweek, really shocked the Bush ranks: If Sen. John Kerry were the president’s opponent, he would be preferred by 49 percent to 46 percent for Bush. The deeper analysis will have to come, but from the many reactions accumulated by the media, it is clear that Bush simply failed in an attempt to explain, and defend where he felt necessary, his administration of the nation’s highest office.

The president also sought to set forth the major themes of the election campaign to come. Clearly, they are going to be: (1) the War on Terror, (2) the War on Terror, (3) the War on Terror and the need for the Patriot Act, (4) tax cuts and (5) prohibitions against gay marriage, abortion and related evils such as family planning and sex education (other than teaching abstinence).

A lot of attention has been given to Bush’s tortured exercise in damage control. In the face of almost unanimous expert opinion that Iraq never had the weapons of mass destruction Bush claimed as his reason for going to war, Bush was forced to qualify the claim as "weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities." The cameras didn’t catch any of the distinguished audience giggling, but suppression of a guffaw must have required a measure of self-control on the part of some.

The president also had a scattering of goodies for various groups – some of which would cost virtually nothing and some of which would cost billions of dollars, with implications for the ballooning deficit that make even many of his conservative supporters cringe.

Bush will have many more opportunities to address the nation from that bully pulpit. One of his great advantages over the Democratic opponent will be his ability to stage events commanding the nation’s, indeed the world’s, attention: Note President Bush’s Thanksgiving Day visit to the troops in Iraq. It would be churlish to suggest that the president might have been thinking politics at such a time – but presidential-campaign history has other examples of the use of this powerful tool that circumstances deny to a president’s challenger.

This election year is not a full month old, and in its first two weeks we have seen enough political theater to promise a dramatic run until November – one playing on a stage whose background is perhaps one of the most critical periods in the nation’s history.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail(at)

©2004 Walter Cronkite