- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

This past weekend, Sen. John Edwards came for a rally in St. Paul, Minn. There was little publicity for the hastily arranged event. Edwards organizers had secured an auditorium that held 600. They hoped they could fill the room. Two thousand persons showed up before the police closed off the road that led to the hall. Mr. Edwards, who had been in Minnesota only once before, for a fundraiser early in the campaign, gave his stump speech, mostly to folks who knew little about him, and provoked a thunderous response.

The following evening, Mr. Edwards’ wife Elizabeth came to Minneapolis and spoke to a small group of parents concerned about imminent school closings in the city. She has been flying around the country in the two-week hiatus between the Wisconsin primary and March 2 to complement her husband’s race to get his message and himself before voters. Both of them say that if voters get to know the North Carolina senator, they will vote for him. There is some evidence now, beginning with the Iowa caucus, that this is true.

Mrs. Edwards is an unheralded asset in this campaign. While her husband’s charismatic populist message wowed a huge crowd here the day before, she accomplished much the same before less than a 100 persons by her obvious intelligence and grasp of the education issues facing her audience. With personal references — “John and I have had children in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and the ‘00s,” and “When John comes home at night, he doesn’t have a cognac and light a cigar, he has a three year old and a five year old jump on him, talking to him about toys and video games” — and a strong grasp of the issues, she soon had this group of mothers and fathers nodding their heads in much the same fashion that heads had nodded the afternoon before as her husband explained his view of the economy, jobs, Iraq and his theme of hope for the future.

I didn’t agree with all that each of them said, but I was struck by how each of them were taking time to explain what they believed and why they believed it. Of course, Howard Dean did it with some notable success early in the campaign. Sen. John Kerry has obviously had more success doing it recently (although, like the president, he is not a compelling speaker). But not all has been true explanation. Much political talk today is made of slogans and personal attacks, and much of it has more emotion than clarity.

On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney came to Minneapolis for a fundraiser. Minnesota voted only narrowly for Al Gore in 2000; and Bush-Cheney has an excellent chance to carry the state in 2004. The event was open to the media, and I wanted to hear what the arguably most significant vice president in history had to say in answer to the case the Democratic candidates have been making for months. Mr. Cheney is not an orator, but he is smart and speaks directly and well. Needless to say, he is also well-informed about what is going on in the administration. What he said, however, was a simple list of statements about the accomplishments of the Bush White House. The vice president offered no real explanation, other than the shorthand presentation that presumes his audience already knew as much as he did. No wonder the president’s numbers have fallen so much, I thought. Most Americans are not pundits or professors. Even supporters want to understand better the issues facing the country and what is being done about them. This audience should have been the strongest Bush-Cheney partisans. They applauded only politely.

Gertrude Stein once dismissed Ernest Hemingway as a “village explainer.” I happen to enjoy reading the enigmatic, experimental Stein, but the fact remains that almost 70 years later, Hemingway is still read by millions and is established as a beloved American author. Ms. Stein is also still read and respected, but I think her following is in the thousands at best.

President Bush and Mr. Cheney probably think that, since they are doing the work, they don’t have to explain, or that the explanations can wait. That is a profound misunderstanding of their job.

I know that Bush-Cheney campaign folks argue that it is necessary to wait for the Democrats to pick a candidate before the political campaign can begin. Perhaps so, but the time to explain is not bound by any campaign. It is part of governing, and it is ongoing. Successful military efforts were conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq, the economy is clearly (but slowly) turning around, reforms in public health and education have, and are, taking place. Are the voters to understand all of this by osmosis? Can it be communicated entirely in the final months and weeks of the campaign solely by TV ads and stand-ins? Will clever slogans and emotional appeals do the job?

I don’t think so. The president has accumulated, for good reason, much support in the nation for his conduct after September 11 and for dealing with the economic problems he inherited. I am far from the first to point out that this was also true early in the first (and only ) term of his father.

Some have suggested that the president has indeed just opened his campaign with his remarks about an “ownership society.” If so, this interesting idea cannot be just a slogan. The president needs not only to repeat this idea, he needs to connect it to the voters by explaining what he means.

We have been told in recent months that Mr. Bush will not repeat the mistakes of his father. Perhaps he does not intend to do so, but if he means it, he will have to explain himself — not just campaign against his opponent. Whether he does it best in press conferences or in speeches is not the issue now. He must do it the best way he can in all formats. If he does not, I know some folks who will do it for him, and they don’t have his best prospects as their goal.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.

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