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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 1999/4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760


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Bush Steamrolls Along

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT WAS ANOTHER DAZZLING WEEK for Gov. George W. Bush. With his jabs at the GOP Congress (of which there actually were few; it’s just that the clueless media concentrated on them) he’s taken another giant step at winning the Republican nomination and then the presidency. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, with the shadow of Newt Gingrich hovering behind them, are not popular men in America. That’s not fair, from my standpoint, but it’s the truth. Bush has to set himself apart from the Gingrich image, and he’s done it, most recently with a brilliant “Slouching toward Gomorrah” speech on education at the Manhattan Institute.

The pundits, who believe it’s still 1988 and are covering the campaign as though it were, all had the same line: Bush is acting like Clinton in ’92 and has done a Sister Souljah routine. But that’s not accurate.

Clinton had wrapped up the Democratic nomination in ’92 when he attacked the evil sister on June 13 in an effort to distance himself from Jesse Jackson. (It’s hilarious that Jackson was Clinton’s personal pastor during his Monica troubles last year; neither man has any shame.) But Clinton wasn’t running ahead in the general election polls at the time: in fact, in some data he was in third place, behind President Bush and Ross Perot (who wouldn’t drop out of the race until July 16, only to reappear in the fall). It wasn’t until just before the Democratic Convention that Clinton took off in the polls and never looked back.

William Bennett didn’t take offense at Bush’s comments, writing in the Oct. 7 New York Times, “His is a sound political strategy, based on an accurate assessment of the state of our culture... The conservative movement should publicly and repeatedly declare that its noble goal is to make American society more humane, civil, responsible and just.”

The only candidate who has a chance of defeating Bush for the nomination is John McCain, and as the New York Times/Washington Post candidate, he’s perceived, correctly, as less culturally conservative than Bush. In fact, if McCain does gather steam in New Hampshire, as polls suggest, this will simply bring more money to the Texas Governor and toughen him up.

As I've said, liberals are perplexed. In the current New York, Michael Tomasky reacts to the Manhattan Institute speech: “This is great politics, and smart P.R. But if people like me approve, then somebody, somewhere, surely disapproves. How long can Bush bash the right?” Again, an example of hyperbole: Bush has hardly “bashed” the right; he’s merely jabbed them, and to great effect. But give Tomasky credit for figuring out Bush’s strategy better than most of his myopic, lazy colleagues. He concludes: “Gary Bauer can cry all night about Bush’s selling their party out, but [he’s] fighting the last war. Bush is fighting the next one... But it’s not likely [rabid right-wingers] can stop Bush, or make him change very much. There’s a word for a candidate like that, or three words: tough to beat.”

My only concern with Bush is that he too often backpedals after criticizing allies. He handled the “Buchanan problem” without much finesse. And he needs to ratchet up the terms of the election, articulating bigger ideas that other candidates don’t have the guts to. No one can say that he’s a blank slate on issues anymore; as promised, he’s rolling out his policy statements one by one. But he’s also succeeding in bringing optimism to the right, talking relentlessly about success and not failure, and conveying his enthusiasm for the future.

Although the 2000 presidential campaign is probably more unique than any we can remember, it bears the closest similarity to 1960’s. Back then, it was also a prosperous time for the country, but there was an undefined restlessness, a need for a change from the status quo.

Obviously, after the Clinton years, that change is even more desired and necessary today.

On the Democratic side, the contest just gets uglier. I hope that Bradley wins the nomination; he’ll be easier to defeat than a scabbed-up Gore. Bradley’s an egghead, an Adlai Stevenson, who won’t be able to pull off his “thinking man” charade during a general election. He’d probably win New York and New Jersey, but wouldn’t have a chance in the South, most of the Midwest and the Western states. California would probably be a tossup.

But Gore probably won’t be the nominee: he’s stuck by the scandal-tarred Tony Coelho, and just last week appointed Donna Brazile as his campaign manager. Doesn’t this guy ever learn from his own mistakes? Brazile was fired from the Dukakis campaign in ’88 when she slandered Vice President Bush with adultery rumors; that strategy was just a sneak peek at the Clinton operation four years later. In a fawning profile of Brazile in the Oct. 11 New York Times (which has devoted its pages to resuscitating Gore), Melinda Henneberger writes: “All of which might explain why Ms. Brazile seemed so genuinely unfazed by the problems facing Al Gore’s presidential campaign. She knows about coming back.” Ugh.

In the Oct. 18 Newsweek, reporter and TV pundit Howard Fineman is typically out of touch. He compares the Democratic contest to 1984’s, with Gore as Walter Mondale and Bradley as Gary Hart. That’s absurd, for while Gore is trawling for the same machine endorsements and money that Mondale locked up, it’s an entirely different election. First, Mondale was running against an extremely popular incumbent president, while this year there’s an open seat; second, Hart’s comet-like challenge came out of nowhere and he didn’t have the money to capitalize on it, while Bradley is even with Gore on that front; finally, Mondale wasn’t saddled with a corrupt president’s legacy. Jimmy Carter was an ineffective chief executive but no one would say he was immoral or self-absorbed. Also, don’t forget that Bill Clinton, in his peculiarly twisted way, wants Gore to lose. He can’t face the possibility that his vice president would succeed in office and not be reviled for being a lying scumbag.

The new Gore look
A source in the Gore campaign tells me that their candidate will wage a very negative race against Bradley, part of the Robert Shrum/Brazile strategy, that will build on his attacks on the former Knick at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa last Saturday night. If that’s true, Gore is finished. At that event, Gore again challenged Bradley to a debate a week and then took direct shots at the former New Jersey Senator’s congressional record. He said: “In 1981, when Reaganomics was put up for a vote, and some Democrats felt that, for their political survival they had to vote for the slashing budget cuts that raised child poverty and diminished health care coverage and hurt public schools, I never walked away. I decided to stay and fight... When Newt Gingrich took over the Congress and tried to reinforce Reaganomics, some walked away. I decided to stay and fight.”

Well, although Bradley didn’t run for reelection in ’96, after 18 years in the Senate, you could make the case that he was disgusted with the Democratic administration. Reacting to Gore’s amped-up rhetoric, Bradley told The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, “This is what I call dartboard politics. Throw a little dart and hope that it will be a poison dart. I think the people are fed up with that... I’m not in the business of responding to every one of their darts.”

The Times insists that Gore is back on track. R.W. Apple, in an Oct. 11 story headlined “Notion of a New Al Gore Begins to Take Root,” absurdly writes that the “new” Gore is effective because, in the Vice President’s words, he has “started to connect with the American people.” Apple doesn’t question the candidate about how it’s taken an extraordinarily long time to pull that off considering he’s been in the political limelight for seven years. And Apple, disengaged as ever, takes the word of Gore’s aides that their candidate started to turn things around on Aug. 12 at a bingo hall in Iowa. Sure. That’s why since that magical summer night, Gore’s made a farcical move of his campaign headquarters to Nashville, fired key advisers and pollsters, and started calling Bill Bradley names.

Finally, in Sunday’s Washington Post, Patrick Reddy, a Democratic pollster, wrote that only Gore can defeat Bush. I agree with that, but not with his strange reasoning. He writes: “But Gore is the only Democrat who can break the GOP grip on the South...” Uh, Patrick, are you forgetting that Jeb Bush is governor of Florida and his brother, the candidate, is governor of Texas? Also, Gore wouldn’t have a shot in South Carolina or Virginia, and right now he’s losing to Bush in his home state of Tennessee. It’s possible that Gore could defeat Bush, but that win will come by carrying New York, California and all of the Rust Belt states.

John McCain media fan club update

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg was the most disgusting offender in the past week, with a slimy report on Oct. 4 filed after a few days on the road with Mr. No Nonsense Weisberg: “Why do the hacks love McCain? You could start with our admiration for a quality not many of us possess: physical courage... Reporters respect McCain less because he takes liberal positions than because of the way he puts his beliefs ahead of his career as a matter of course... Then there’s the McCain charm. I doubt I’ll enjoy any part of this 2000 campaign so much as a couple of days spent as part of a three-person press corps traveling with McCain. He’s funny, friendly, and far too candid for his own good... He also responds to the press. Unlike the inaccessible George W. Bush, you can get to McCain easily, and have a frank, intelligent discussion with him about just about any topic... When McCain flatters you, it doesn’t feel automatic or calculated. He truly likes us journalists. It’s his fellow Senators he can’t stand.”

How depressing. Weisberg might give a call to any of 15 reporters in Arizona and ask how responsive McCain is to their constant calls. And of course the blowhard is willing to talk to the Washington press right now: he’s running for president, dummy, and needs all the free publicity he can get. If that means flattering chumps like Weisberg, he’ll swallow it. If McCain had the money that Bush does, and the endorsements, he wouldn’t “truly like us journalists.” He’d avoid them to hold his lead.

Tucker Carlson, the excellent Weekly Standard reporter and CNN television personality, wrote about McCain from a different angle in the November issue of Talk, perhaps the only readable piece in that flailing magazine. Carlson agrees that McCain is fun to hang out with, loves his off-color jokes, his nasty jabs at potential voters on the stump, and says, “After about an hour you find yourself fighting the urge to crack a beer and call him ‘John.’” But Carlson doesn’t buy the shtick, entertaining though it may be.

He writes: “The White House—of course. Spend enough time with McCain and you begin to forget that he is in the process of running for president. Or maybe you simply don’t care to remember. McCain the Man is so superior to McCain the Presidential Candidate that it seems a shame he didn’t just remain a widely admired senator.

He continues: “Once, when I asked him to elaborate a bit [about his views on abortion], McCain explained that, while they might look divided, activists at both poles of the abortion debate actually ‘share the same goal.’ I meant to ask a follow-up question, but my head was spinning too fast.”

Susan Estrich, the manager of Mike Dukakis’ don’t-let-this-happen-to-you presidential campaign of ’88, isn’t as obsequious as Weisberg in her Sept. 29 syndicated column, but she’s an admirer as well. Estrich has conceded the GOP nomination to Gov. Bush, but is pushing for McCain to be his veep, an event that’s less likely to occur than The New York Times banning biased reporting. Failing that choice, Estrich proposes a Bradley-McCain ticket, saying, “A fusion ticket isn’t likely in today’s politics, but it would certainly be popular… It’s enough to make many people yearn for a real Reform Party.”

Thomas Oliphant, the McGovernite joke pundit for The Boston Globe, wrote such a stupid piece last week, headlined “True-blue conservative,” that the McCain machine, such as it is, immediately had copies made and put it in their stack of campaign materials. Oliphant despises Bush and so he uses McCain (whom he’d never vote for over Bradley or Gore) as a foil to belittle the GOP leader. The Beltway insider blathers on about how honest McCain is, that he’s his own man, putting principle over expediency, and then comes up with this whopper:

“Now take tax cuts. Bush supports virtually everything on the GOP congressional wish list, symbolized by that $792 billion monstrosity that President Clinton just vetoed, half of which was polluted by special interest business goodies. McCain made the mistake of voting for it in the Senate, but only out of party loyalty and the view that it wasn’t going to become law.”

What happened to the guy whose own beliefs trump politics? Oliphant doesn’t explain, because he can’t.

Finally, The Economist’s “Lexington” weighs in on McCain in its current issue. “But it’s not so clear that a ‘general pain in the ass’ [how McCain gleefully describes himself] is what voters want. American leaders set rules for others. They are the overdog. Others react to them. This may explain why voters admire, but do not support, Mr. McCain. He is a courageous man. But his courage lies in resisting what he thinks is wrong. And Americans may not want a resistance hero as president.”

So, as you can see, some sanity is to be found amidst the McCain Scam.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©1999, Russ Smith