Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?

Dick Wirthlin [RSS] fears that a great line he helped write might come back to haunt his party 24 years later:

Watching the presidential campaign unfold, I fear that something Ronald Reagan, David Gergen and I did 24 years ago may have armed Senator John Kerry with a potentially lethal rhetorical weapon. While helping Mr. Reagan prepare for his debate with President Jimmy Carter, we came up with what was probably the most devastating line Mr. Reagan used against Mr. Carter: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Larry King put the question to President Bush last week, and some Democrats have been asking it as well. If Mr. Bush wants to neutralize this question, he must act before the debates this fall – and this month’s Republican National Convention provides him with the ideal opportunity.

Agreed. And it’s a reasonably fair question. Certainly, the answer is mixed. The economy is better now than it was when Bush took office–but the perception is likey the opposite. We were at war four years ago, but only the other side knew it; we all know now. Still, it’s a fair question and one that Bush needs to answer satisfactorally.

Wirthlin also reminds us of a great sound byte from 2000:

The good news for Republicans is that Mr. Bush has proved to be adept at snatching rhetorical arrows from his opponent’s quiver. In 2000, for example, former Vice President Al Gore was fond of the phrase “risky scheme”; in fact, he deemed just about every one of Mr. Bush’s proposals a “risky scheme.”

Until, that is, Mr. Bush delivered his acceptance speech and said of his opponent: “Every one of the proposals I’ve talked about tonight he’s called a risky scheme over and over again. It is the sum of his message, the politics of the roadblock, the philosophy of the stop sign. If my opponent had been at the moon launch, it would have been a risky rocket scheme. If he had been there when Edison was testing the light bulb, it would have been a risky anti-candle scheme. And if he had been there when the Internet was invented…”

Not only did the line bring down the house, it effectively muzzled Mr. Gore by daring him to continue repeating the line – something he did seldom thereafter.

We’ll see whether 2004 brings similarly memorable lines. Certainly, it won’t be hard to top the Democratic convention, where the funniest lines came from Al Sharpton and were completely off message.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.