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Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 1999 /29 Kislev, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Welcome to the world of 'good enough' --
MANCHESTER, N.H.–What, as Sigmund Freud might have asked, do Republicans want? The question is put to Steve Duprey, the Granite State's Republican chairman. Perhaps, he's asked, Republicans want most to see the repudiation of Bill Clinton? Duprey smiles. "Absolutely right," he says. As much as Clinton wants his vice president to succeed him, Republicans want whatever it takes to bury the Clinton era.

This context makes sense of the Republican primary contest. At this point in the 1995-96 cycle, Republicans were cheering on Newt Gingrich in his budget battle with Clinton, confident that any Republican could beat the president.

This cycle, Republicans are not so confident. They saw Bill Clinton win easily in 1996. Then Democrats nearly captured the House in 1998. This year, they saw Clinton, though he obstructed the operation of a United States district court, escape removal from office. So what do Republicans want? Nothing more and nothing less than a candidate who will win. Bill Gates's Microsoft has made billions of dollars turning out software that is "good enough"–not perfect, but reliable enough to get the job done. That's what Republicans want–a nominee "good enough" to end the Age of Clinton.

Going soggy. All this was on view last week as the six remaining Republican candidates made their joint appearance–not a debate–at WMUR-TV here. George W. Bush came into this, his first such appearance, far ahead in national polls, though he is running about even with John McCain in New Hampshire. (Voters here seem to believe that their first-in-the-nation primary is mandated somewhere in the Constitution and, resenting Bush's refusal to appear at earlier candidate forums, have been taking a favorable look at McCain.) Bush, careful not to make mistakes, often sounded rehearsed, speaking in rote, repeating lines from the carefully crafted speeches he has made on Social Security, taxes, defense, and foreign policy and telling how he has provided leadership as governor of the second-largest state. But there is nothing wrong with sticking with positions you have worked hard to develop. Bush did show animation when asked about Saddam Hussein; the press corps gasped when he said, "If I found he was developing weapons of mass destruction, I'd take them out." Overall, Bush seemed, if not dazzling, "good enough."

So did McCain. He gracefully pushed aside repeated questions about his temper and was magisterial enough to tell a grisly but funny joke about how, if Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan died, he would prop him up and put sunglasses on him. Like the other candidates, McCain knows that this year voters dislike the crunchy, confrontational style that appealed to angry Republicans four years ago; they prefer a soggy, consensus-minded approach and are looking for what Clinton so conspicuously lacks: good character. New Hampshire Republicans admire McCain and don't mind that on some issues–notably campaign finance reforms–he opposes Republican orthodoxy.

McCain must win here on February 1. The polls suggest such a result is possible but not certain. After that, his next big test comes February 19, in South Carolina, where he is building a good organization and has ads already on TV. But polls there show McCain far behind Bush. If McCain can somehow win in both places, though, he might have a chance in February 22 contests in Michigan–in which he is just now starting to organize–and in his own Arizona, where Bush has been competitive in polls.

Steve Forbes is running a campaign that would probably have won him the nomination in 1996: He started early, wooed religious conservatives, organized heavily, and emphasized bold stands on many issues. Last week he peppered Bush with attacks on his tax cuts and his education plan and hit his refusal to forswear taxes on Internet sales and his avoidance of debate. But voters' aversion to crunchiness has forced Forbes to avoid the slashing negative ads he used last time. His chances depend on Iowa, where his personal campaigning and ads have propelled him to 20 percent in one poll.

Republicans looking for "good enough" don't seem much interested in Forbes, however. The same can be said of the other three candidates. In Manchester, Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch made dignified presentations of their intellectually serious and original views, and Alan Keyes produced his usual fiery oratory. But are voters any more curious about them than consumers are about alternatives to Windows 98? Reporters here in WMUR's press room were looking, as usual, for conflict and error, but in this consensus-minded, "good enough" year, there were no mistakes and little argument. (And the polls tell us there's not even a big issue.)

Most Republican voters, not knowing any of the candidates well, seem content to choose a nominee the way parents in India sometimes choose a bride for their son: because they know the family. They are inclined to believe that George Bush's son has the knowledge and Barbara Bush's son the character to be a good candidate and a good president.

Or at least "good enough."

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


11/2/999: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©1999, Michael Barone