Packaging the Bush Doctrine

President Bush has an image of being a bold, risk-taking, sometimes reckless leader. He pushed through his signature policies—tax cuts, the war in Iraq—in defiance of all opposition, including (on Iraq) the opposition of most of the world. Bush delights in his image. He declared at the Republican convention, "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.'"

Men admire risk-taking and competition. Both traits are central to the worlds of sports and business, which happen to be the worlds from which Bush came. But risk-taking and competition can be off-putting to women, who value the Democratic Party as the one that will protect the safety net. When Bush spoke at the GOP convention, he borrowed a page from the old master at winning over women voters—Bill Clinton.

Clinton understood that after the health care reform fiasco of 1994, voters were in no mood for bold initiatives. So he shifted gears and offered a low-risk agenda of modest, cautious, small-scale initiatives: a minimum-wage hike, the Brady gun-control bill, anti-smoking measures, the assault weapons ban, the Family Leave Act, the placing of more police officers on the streets, education tax breaks, curbs on television violence, and others. President Clinton famously set the agenda for his 1996 re-election campaign by declaring, "The era of big government is over." Women responded by giving him a 16-point margin over Bob Dole. Among men, the vote was Dole 44 percent, Clinton 43 percent.

What Bush delivered in Madison Square Garden last week was more or less a State of the Union speech. The first part of his acceptance speech was a long list of domestic initiatives aimed at reassuring voters, particularly women voters. He talked about job-training programs, funding for community colleges, health savings accounts, rural health care centers, flextime, early-intervention programs for at-risk children, medical liability reform, and aggressive outreach to enroll poor children in health insurance programs. It appears the era of big government is not quite over.

Did anything remain of Bush's bold, high-risk agenda? Yes. But it was all in the realm of foreign policy. Bush concluded his remarks by asserting, "This young century will be liberty's century. By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world." Those few words encompass the core of the neoconservative agenda, that promoting democracy in other countries will ensure America's security.

Questions can be raised about that assertion. Is it true that turning other countries—presumably in the Middle East—into democracies would make them less threatening to the United States? After Islamic fundamentalists won elections in Algeria, the United States tacitly supported a military takeover. The 2002 elections brought an Islamic party to power in Turkey, which then distanced itself from the U.S. effort in Iraq. It is hard to imagine how a democratic Saudi Arabia would be friendlier to the United States than the current royal regime is.

Bush's assertion attempts to justify U.S. intervention in other countries' affairs: The United States will turn them into democracies in order to protect U.S. security. Wasn't that the whole idea behind the war in Iraq? As former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said at the Republican convention, "President Bush decided that we could no longer be just on defense against global terrorism, but we must also be on offense." Certainly the case remains open whether U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq will actually result in stable, democratic, and nonthreatening regimes.

"I believe in the transformational power of liberty," Bush said at the convention. "As freedom advances, heart by heart and nation by nation, America will be more secure and the world more peaceful." That is the Bush Doctrine, bold and breathtaking in its ambition. How can Bush sell it to an anxious nation?

The answer is 9/11. The GOP has become the 9/11 party. Every moment of the convention was steeped in the mood of threat and danger. "In times of war and danger, as we're now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision," Giuliani said. Keynote speaker Zell Miller thundered, "In this hour of danger, our president has had the courage to stand up."

The convention speakers deftly packaged the Bush Doctrine as a response to 9/11: We must defend ourselves from terrorism by going on the offensive against threatening regimes—and by turning them into democracies. "We extend freedom, and it's our mission," Giuliani said. "It's the long-term answer to global terrorism. Governments that are free and accountable."

9/11 justifies Iraq, in other words, so there's no need to find weapons of mass destruction. Vice President Cheney denounced John Kerry's pledge to "forcefully defend America after we have been attacked" by saying, "My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked." Yes, but not by Iraq. Bush made the connection between 9/11 and Iraq explicit. "September 11 requires our country to think differently," he said. "We must, and we will, confront threats to America before it is too late."

Was there a payoff for Bush? He got a small bounce from his convention, according to the Gallup Poll. His lead over Kerry, which had stood at 50 to 47 percent, rose to 52 to 45 percent. But the bounce was entirely among men (up 6 percentage points). Women were not impressed (down 1 point). The convention showcased the Bush Doctrine much more than the safety net.