Bush's reality slap

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 28, 2000

Gov. George W. Bush's road to the White House may have been paved with good intentions, but it has thus far been littered with harsh realities. Boston Herald columnist Don Feder is only slightly exaggerating when he says that "what began as a coronation is becoming a decapitation."

Here is the break-down: While Bush leads in the delegate tally, he has prevailed in only one state where Sen. John McCain has actually campaigned (South Carolina). He won Iowa and Delaware, but McCain bypassed both states.

He lost New Hampshire and Michigan and was trounced in McCain's Arizona despite the backing of the state's GOP governor, Jane Hull.

Now, Bush partisans correctly observe that their candidate performs well among actual Republicans. Bush won two-thirds of the Republicans who voted in the Michigan primary, a percentage similar to the one he garnered in South Carolina. McCain won only because these genuine Republicans comprised less than one half of the primary voters, which is a statement to the absurdity of open primaries. Should Southern Baptists choose the Pope, or should we open our presidential elections to foreign nationals (like the Clinton administration did in 1996, but that's another story)? Of course not. Republicans alone should choose the Republican nominee, Democrats the Democratic nominee.

But wasn't the case for Bush all along that he could appeal to a broader base than the GOP's hard-core following? That he was a candidate whose appeal would transcend, gender, racial, ethnic, party and socioeconomic lines? That he could modify the conservative message just enough to appeal to the "vital center" without sacrificing anything important?

The primary results don't appear to bear this out. Bush's support has come from conservative Republicans. His South Carolina victory is at least partly the result of a big push among religious conservatives by such figures as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. He has not performed especially well among moderate to liberal Republicans, while Democrats and independents (even those who describe themselves as conservatives) have voted en masse for McCain. McCain - whose 56 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1998 exceeded Bush's vaunted (and by some counts, inflated) 49 percent without a single Spanish-speaking ad - won 72 percent of the black vote in Michigan. Bush
lagged some 60 percentage points behind, tying Alan Keyes.

True, this is partly because of a campaign among some of the state's black political activists to embarrass and discredit Gov. John Engler, Bush's biggest (no pun intended) Michigan backer. But that fact simply illustrates another Bush problem: His firewall among the GOP governors has become a firetrap. By so closely linking himself to these governors, he is vulnerable to fluctuations in their popularity. Engler's support may have actually cost Bush the primary.

He is suffering in Connecticut at least in part because of Gov. John Rowland. Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci is reeling from a variety of scandals among his subordinates and public outrage over a drastically over-budget public works project known as the Big Dig, jeopardizing Bush's fortunes in that state. Gubernatorial support has proved to be a decidedly two-edged sword.

Bush remains the prohibitive favorite. He retains a financial edge that will help him campaign simultaneously in multiple media markets and states. Many upcoming delegate-rich states do not have open primaries, putting Democrat-dependent McCain at a distinct disadvantage. Bush has a tax-cut plan and other aspects of his platform that are clearly more Reagan-esque. It is still quite likely that he will be the GOP nominee.

However, the challenge McCain has posed thus far has dramatized a crucial fact: The rationale Republicans have used in piling their fortunes on an ideologically lukewarm, constitutionally weak, relatively inexperienced governor who has enjoyed modest success in a time of prosperity has been an elaborate sham. In exchange for a nominee who accuses the (increasingly spendthrift) Republican Congress of "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor" and chides conservatives for their lack of enthusiasm for government, we get a candidate who really doesn't appeal to as many people as his handlers had promised and doesn't really appear so electable after all.

As he is about so many other things, Alan Keyes is absolutely correct in saying that Bush cannot defend the Republican message. The American people will not be moved toward the pro-life position by pap about welcoming people into life, or whatever other bumper-sticker statement Bush awkwardly spits out before quickly moving on to some more pressing moral issue, like tort reform.

They will not learn the falsity of Al Gore's class-warfare demagoguery when Bush promises to "cut the taxes." Indeed, Bush argues "it's conservative to cut taxes and it is compassionate to give people money." That sublogical burbling isn't a conservative argument at all - compassion involves far more than simply giving people money, and cutting taxes doesn't involve giving anybody anything out of some notion of compassion but rather restoring to income-earners what is rightfully theirs. Nor is it persuasive to anybody who doesn't spend every Saturday night at home watching Newt Gingrich's lectures on videotape.

Many conservatives know that Keyes is right, but do not think his being right should have any bearing on how they vote because Keyes simply cannot win. The invincible George W. Bush is who we must count on to win, even if he can't win our primaries or get votes from the people he was supposed to attract to our party.

Conservative Republicans are like that woman from Who Wants to Marry A Multimillionaire? "We are constantly looking around wondering how we got ourselves into such a mess when the stupidity of our actions was manifest from the beginning and repeatedly pointed out by sane observers."

It's just what we get for marrying Bush sight unseen.

Antle is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm for Republican candidates. You can e-mail him at Jimantle@aol.com

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