Shirtsleeves Style Is a Strong Suit for Bush

WaPo features an “Analysis” piece by John Harris “Shirtsleeves Style Is a Strong Suit for Bush,” on page A2.

President Bush has formidable obstacles to reelection, but he served a reminder last week that he is a politician with formidable strengths. Anyone who doubts it should spend some time watching the shirtsleeves campaign. In five days of energetic campaigning through five swing states, Bush looked and sounded like someone dropping by a neighbor’s lawn party — no coat, no tie, rolled-up sleeves, and conversational speeches in which he implored voters to “put a man in there who can get the job done.”

In loosening his style, Bush tightened his message. Fielding friendly questions at “Ask President Bush” forums, or lathering up the crowds at pep rallies like the one here on Saturday afternoon, he presented his case for reelection with a force and fluency that sometimes eluded him at important moments over the past year. The message Bush offered at these events has been familiar for months: that he is a plain-spoken conservative who knows his mind and is resolute in crisis, and that his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, is the opposite on each count. But crafting an argument and finding the words and cadences to deliver it effectively can be different things. Two weeks before the Republican National Convention, Bush’s performances in recent days suggested someone who has settled on a comfortable marriage of message and style. Applause lines, anecdotes, and wisecracks at Kerry’s expense rolled off at a steady clip. There was a buoyant, jaunty manner that announced a politician who is relishing his fight.

This is all true. It misses, however, a rather key point. The reason Bush can pull off the image of “he is a plain-spoken conservative who knows his mind and is resolute in crisis” is because that’s who he is. He’s not very comfortable with a teleprompter in front of him and isn’t particularly good at news conferences. He is, however, quite comfortable just speaking his mind in front of ordinary folks. John Kerry (and Al Gore before him) aren’t as good at it because they’re plainly trying to put on an act.

None of these men, of course, are “regular guys” in the sense of having lived an ordinary life. All were born into substantial wealth and priviledge and were isolated from the experiences of the workaday world through elite prep schools and private Ivy League colleges. Somewhere along the way, though, whether it’s his immersion into evangelical Christianity or the struggles of a misspent youth, Bush picked up an honest empathy for the heartland.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum counters that Bush is only comfortable in front of sympathetic groups and argues,

Now, it is true that he’s a “plain-spoken conservative who knows his mind,” but you can find one of those at any neighborhood watering hole. And that pretty much describes George Bush: a man who picked up his opinions in a bar 30 years ago and has never gone much beyond that. After all, guys in bars also know their minds pretty well and want everyone else to know it, don’t they?

There’s something to this–it is where I was going with “the struggles of a misspent youth”–but it, to coin a phrase, misunderestimates Bush. The man got through Yale, picked up an MBA from Harvard, and hangs out with some pretty brainy folks. I don’t think it’s so much that he doesn’t see nuance but that, once he’s made a decision, he’s not prone to losing much sleep over it. Rather Trumanesque in that sense.

Matthew Yglesias has a piece in The American Prospect that digs up the “Bush is dumb argument.”

Intelligence matters. The job of the president of the United States is not to love his wife; it’s to manage a wide range of complicated issues. That requires character, yes, but not the kind of character measured by private virtues like fidelity to spouse and frequency of quotations from Scripture. Yet it also requires intelligence. It requires intellectual curiosity, an ability to familiarize oneself with a broad range of views, the capacity — yes — to grasp nuances, to foresee the potential ramifications of one’s decisions, and, simply, to think things through. Four years ago, these were not considered necessary pieces of presidential equipment. Today, they have to be.


Reviewing Clinton’s My Life in the June 24, 2004, Los Angeles Times, neoconservative Max Boot happily concluded that “conservatives like character, liberals like cleverness.†He’s right. But to state what should be obvious, the president is not your father, your husband, your drinking buddy, or your minister. These are important roles, but they are not the president’s. He has a job to do, and it’s a difficult one, involving a wide array of complicated issues. His responsibility to manage these issues is a public one, and the capacity to do so in a competent and moral manner is fundamentally unrelated to the private virtues of family, friendship, fidelity, charity, compassion, and all the rest.

For the president to lead an exemplary personal life is surely superior to the alternative. But within obvious limits — no one would want an alcoholic president, for example — it doesn’t really matter. Clinton’s indiscretions caused his family pain and produced awkward moments for the parents of some young children. But Bush’s bungling has gotten people killed in Iraq, saddled the nation with enormous debts, and created long-term security problems with which the country has not yet begun to grapple.

The problem with the argument is these are not mutually exclusive issues. A key function of the presidency is to serve as Head of State, the moral embodiment of the nation. Clinton’s transgressions were not private; they sullied the Office and thus the nation. They also delibilitated him from a public policy standpoint for much of the second term.

Further, there is little evidence that the president’s foreign policy comes from lack of intellectual capacity on his part. No one seriously argues that Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Powell, and others are stupid and they are the ones presenting him with options. Bush’s muddling through seems more than easy enough to explain on the basis of ideology, an incredibly poisonous partisan atmosphere that no longer stops at the proverbial water’s edge, and the simple fact that the issues we’re dealing with are phenomenally difficult. I’ve got a PhD specializing in U.S. foreign policy and don’t know all the answers on Iraq, let alone the larger war on terrorism.

It may well be the case that Kerry (and Gore before him) had a more nimble command of the details of public policy arguments than Bush. But the “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” routine does not get through to the average voter. Bill Clinton is the only major politician I can think of who was able to simultaneously be a wonk and connect with ordinary folks. Plainspokeness is very much prized by Americans.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ripdash says:

    Wow. Stunning.

    Bush is almost a wholly manufactured image. All hat, no cattle is the frequently used phrase. From the stage dressing of his Crawford ranch to the exquisitely stage managed photo-ops & now these pre-scripted “Meet Bush” farces. Yeah, I’d feel pretty well at ease too if I knew the answers to all the questions in advance & also knew there’d be no criticism or hardball questions coming my way. Yep, pretty comfortable indeed….

    I never got the whole “guy you’d like to have a beer with” thing. He’s the damn president, for god’s sake! He’s got more important things to do than have a beer with Joe Schmoe. To paraphrase Plato, if you have something physically wrong with you, would you go to a qualified doctor, or a personable quack? For your triple by-pass, do you want the guy who finished head of his class, or do you want the party doc who you’d like to drink with?

    A leader is entrusted with the health & welfare of an entire nation & quite frankly, under the care of party doc Bush, the patient is sinking fast.

  2. Alex says:

    “I never got the whole “guy you’d like to have a beer with” thing.”

    That’s just it — Bush has a “just one of the guys” appeal to him, hence the verdict that he’d be more sociable in a bar. Voters can relate easily. He’s uncomfortable when he’s dressed up, trying to make a speech. That’s when his advisors are working on his image.

  3. McGehee says:

    Matthew Yglesias has a piece in The American Prospect that digs up the “Bush is dumb argument.”

    The problem with this “argument” is that it isn’t one. Yet Bush’s opponents continue to use it as though it were. Just as Dole supporters eight years ago used “He’s not Clinton” as though it were an argument.

    And we know what happened there.

  4. Mike says:

    Anyone who takes a Convair F-102 Delta Dagger supersonic can’t be stupid and live. I’m sorry, critics, but those aircraft required the processing of a large amount of data and split-second decision making.

    Of course that may not be the intelligence necessary for the White House. But please drop the Bush is Stupid argument. It was over a long time ago.