President Bush?

He says he hasn’t made up his mind to run. But he acts like a candidate. Can George W. Bush be the next president? Here’s how.

July 1998By Comments

The reception room at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Cincinnati was filled with around three hundred Republicans who had showed up on a hazy afternoon in late May to meet two direct descendants of presidents. One was Bob Taft, the great-grandson of William Howard Taft, who was holding a fundraiser to benefit his campaign for governor of Ohio. The other, the main speaker at the event, was standing in the audience as Taft introduced him from the podium. “No one has done more for education than George W. Bush,” Taft said, and moments later I felt an elbow jab into my side. The elbow belonged to Bush. “Write that down,” he commanded with mock seriousness. Then he went back to glancing at his speech notes, which were scribbled on loose sheets torn from a yellow legal pad. But he looked up again when Taft addressed him: “George, I hope you won’t confine your ambitions to Texas. I hear there is an office in Washington, an Oval Office, that will soon be available.” This time Bush kept his elbows to himself.

Ten days later I sat in Bush’s office at the end of an hour-long interview. “What’s going to be your lead?” he wanted to know. “Probably the Taft comment,” I said. Bush put his hand to his forehead and groaned. “Not that throwaway line,” he said. “You mean we’ve sat here for an hour and that’s the best you can do? I can do better than that. You should say, ‘I looked into George Bush’s eyes and I saw that his head and his heart are in Texas.’ ”

George W. Bush is engaged in one of the most time-honored and delicate rituals of American politics: not-running for president. Not-running is a very different thing from not running. Colin Powell is not-running. Bush is not-running, which is to say that he is walking in the right direction at a pace he hopes will be of his own choosing. The art of not-running requires that he never raise the issue himself but address it whenever someone else raises it, without being coy or closing the door even an inch. In Cincinnati Bush acknowledged Taft’s mention of the Oval Office vacancy in his remarks. “Every time I leave my state,” he said, “it causes speculation about an election that may be way down the road. The most important election for Bob and for me is 1998, and”—now he turned up the volume and intensity—“none of us had better forget it.” Later, at a “media availability” (what used to be called a press conference), most of the questions were about the presidential race: Don’t trips like this stir speculation? How important is your famous surname in your race? What will weigh most heavily in your decision? Would you like to be president? “I don’t know yet,” said Bush.

Politicians like to control events, not to be controlled by them. For Bush, his rocketing popularity is a mixed blessing. His sudden emergence in two recent polls not only as the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 but also as a slight favorite to defeat Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, is every politician’s dream. It occurred without his raising his visibility, spending a cent, or doing anything to pump up the numbers. But it also occurred at least six months too soon. It has already overshadowed his bid for reelection in November. It has made it harder for him to not-run for president and has increased the pressure on him to run. It has accelerated the process of media scrutiny; the governor’s office has hundreds of requests for interviews from places as far away as France, Germany, and Australia. Reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today have already traveled with him. The election is still two and a half years away, and already Bush is living “in the bubble,” as he calls it, without a trace of fondness. Even if the increased attention does not interfere with Bush’s timetable to announce his plans after the 1999 legislative session, it will interfere with his life.

The stakes have been raised now; he is the front-runner. Last year he got away with a big mistake; this year he won’t. The blunder came when he accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker for a GOP presidential forum in Indianapolis and gave a speech that was panned by the media. Bush had told me afterward that he thought it was a good speech. “I talked about Texas today,” he had said, “and the media wanted America in 2000.” Of course they did. It was a candidate forum. It was the wrong place to not-run for president. If he went, he had to meet the expectation that he would deal with national themes; if he didn’t want to deal with national themes, he shouldn’t have gone. “If you’re afraid to swim,” a Washington consultant told me, “why go to the beach?”

Bush has no choice now; the presidential race has to be part of his calculus. It will affect the invitations he accepts, the interviews he grants, the program he submits to the Legislature, and the themes he develops in his speeches. He must begin to make the transition from a state figure to a national one. Indeed, he has already started to do so. What follows is a blueprint for the way Bush should proceed in order to become president. This is not The Bush Plan; rather, it is a synthesis based on interviews with Bush, his advisers, and Washington consultants, as well as the imperatives of a presidential race. It is by no means a certainty that Bush will run for president. But he has to prepare as though he will.

Step 1: Play the Family Card

“I don’t know” Bush said when I asked him why he thought he was leading in the polls. “It mystifies me.” And then a wisecrack: “Maybe it’s because I have a famous mother.”

But the comment was more wise than crack. Bush’s family is his greatest asset in the race for president, and he knows it. The public may not know him, but they think they know him because they know his parents. (Another explanation for the polls, suggested by a New York Times reporter, is that the public might think that the elder George Bush is a candidate for president in 2000. “Pfff,” said George W. with a wave of his hand when I asked him about that theory. “It’s an insult to Republican voters.”) Bush opens every speech with a series of anecdotes about his family, and it is significant that they seemed to appeal as much to his audience in Cincinnati as in Brownwood. First he talks about his wife, Laura: “She’s a great first lady. Now the same thing is happening to me that happened to my dad.” There is a lot of assumed knowledge in that line, but I have heard him use it four times, and the audience always gets the joke. In another story, he relates that his mother’s inaugural gown was the only artifact from his father’s administration in a Smithsonian exhibit in Houston. “The next week the old man jumped out of the airplane,” Bush says.

In these speeches the man who used to be President George Bush is totally depoliticized. Not a word is said about the Bush administration or its legacy—nothing that might remind anyone of the apostasy of raising taxes or any of the other squabbles with Republican conservatives that are receding into history. Barbara Bush is the hero of these tales; her husband is merely the foil. “My father has been having an identity crisis,” goes yet another story. “My mother was getting her hair done, and the hairdresser said, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing the hair of the mother of the governor.’ ”

Step 2: Win Big in November

The other thing that GOP voters know about George Bush is that he won his office by defeating Ann Richards, a very popular Democrat. After eight years (maybe) of Bill Clinton, they should be hungry for a proven winner in 2000. (Does anyone remember that Bush lost a race for Congress in West Texas back in 1978?) A huge victory over land commissioner Garry Mauro in November would give another boost to his presidential prospects.

How big is huge? In 1994 Bush beat Richards by 8 percentage points, 54 to 46, aided by a tidal wave of new suburban votes. It is unlikely that Mauro can come close to matching Richards’ showing; Bush has had as much as a 50-point lead over him in early polls. Every factor is on Bush’s side: name, money, record, star quality, demographics (the suburbs are still booming). Bob Bullock, the retiring Democratic lieutenant governor, has endorsed Bush. State comptroller John Sharp, the Democratic nominee to replace Bullock, has declined to endorse Mauro. This has the makings of a rout. Republican spinmeisters, who would like to lower the expectations for Bush so that he can exceed them, keep saying the race will tighten and Bush’s percentage of the vote will end up in the upper fifties. Nice try. If the turnout is normal, anything below 60 percent would be a lackluster showing.

To build that margin, Bush has spent the spring traveling to small towns across Texas. I accompanied him on one swing to Eastland and Brownwood after a commencement speech in Dallas. He has become a much better campaigner than he was four years ago. He works a crowd the old-fashioned way, going through it rather than waiting for the people to come to him. He makes eye contact and holds it; I followed him around the room in Eastland and I never once saw his eyes stray from a voter to survey the room. Bush is a toucher: He doesn’t shake a hand so much as grab it; he leans in close, clutches an arm, pats a shoulder, gives a hug. “Hey, buddy,” he’ll say, or “’Preciate your takin’ the time.” His accent is thicker in rural Texas than it is in Dallas, and his comments are folksier. “There’s nothin’ worse than a hot air politician on a hot day,” he said in Eastland, promising the coatless crowd of 150 people who had gathered in a non-air-conditioned meeting hall that his remarks would be brief. A visit from the governor is a big deal in these towns; the mayor of Brownwood made a point of mentioning how often Bush had visited. Bush will run well in rural Texas in November.

More is at stake in the size of Bush’s margin than his own reputation as a vote getter. Agriculture commissioner Rick Perry, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, is counting on Bush’s coattails to pull him through to victory over the formidable Sharp; the more Bush wins by, the greater Perry’s chance of winning. This race is important to Bush’s presidential prospects, because if he were to win the White House, the lieutenant governor would succeed him. If Sharp wins, Texas Republicans will not be pleased with the idea of turning over the statehouse, and the national media line will be that Bush is putting his own ambitions ahead of the good of his party. How many GOP primary voters across America will actually let the loss of the Texas governorship affect how they vote for president? Not many. But the accretion of negative stories can dim a candidate’s star. Just ask California governor Pete Wilson, who faced the same problem four years ago—although, unlike Bush, he didn’t have much shine to dim.

Step 3: Fly Above the Flock

Bush is winning a race that he isn’t in. What could be better? The longer he can stay apart from the Republican field, the better off he is. He shortens the obstacle course: fewer questions to answer, fewer positions to take, less risk of committing a gaffe. The other candidates, even the major ones, all have something to prove. For Steve Forbes, it’s that he’s not an amateur any more. For Newt Gingrich, it’s that he really is a swell fellow. For Lamar Alexander, it’s that he does have a message after all. For Dan Quayle, it’s that he’s not a dunce. The remainder of the field has even more-basic concerns, such as being able to raise enough money to get their campaigns off the ground. At the moment the list of possible contenders is long: senators Fred Thompson, John McCain, John Ashcroft, and Bob Smith; governors Wilson, George Pataki, and John Engler; congressmen Gingrich and John Kasich; veterans Quayle, Alexander, and Jack Kemp; conservative activists Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer; and of course, magazine publisher Forbes. Some of them will be out of the race before Bush gets in. Still more won’t make it to the first primaries.

Staying above the fray helps Bush in Texas too. It makes it easier for Democrats to support him in November and for Democratic legislators to support his program next spring. The downside to waiting is that it gives him less time to raise money and build an organization. Not to worry. Although Bush plays down his family’s political connections—at the media availability in Cincinnati, he said, “I hope to convince a few of Dad’s friends that I’m okay and pick off a few of his enemies”—he knows that he can count on the financial and organizational network his father built over the years. He will be able to raise all the money he needs to run for president.

Step 4: Develop National Themes

Another reason why it is to Bush’s advantage to stay above the fray for now is that he needs the time to turn himself into a national candidate. His first legislative program was a home run by state standards: a complete overhaul of the public education system, tort reform, welfare reform, tougher juvenile-justice laws. Of those issues, however, only welfare reform has much national appeal, and Texas was hardly a trailblazer; it followed the path laid out by Congress and other states. His second session was less successful. Bush’s ambitious property-tax reform was scaled back to an increase in the homestead exemption. (On the campaign trail, though, it reemerges as “the largest tax cut in Texas history.”) His initiatives to deregulate electricity and ban gambling machines failed.

This session will have to be better. Bush’s top priority is ending the social promotion of students, a hard-line program that, after an effective attack by Mauro, matured into teaching every child to read by the third grade. (The program didn’t change; the spin did.) He will ask the Legislature for $203 million for training teachers, diagnosing students’ problems, and establishing reading academies. This is as worthy a program as a state can undertake, and Bush believes in it totally. “What’s going to be the legacy of our generation?” he asked me. “It should be the best education system in the world. Education is freedom: It’s the best juvenile-justice system, the best welfare system.” As he spoke, he kept shaking his finger at me. It was the most intense moment of our conversation, by far.

Unfortunately for Bush, public education is neither a national issue nor a major concern of most Republicans; as a party, the GOP has all but given up on public schools and embraces alternatives such as vouchers. But he thinks he has found a way to make some political capital out of education: Wrap it in the larger national theme of limited government. “I believe government should do a few things and do them well,” he said in his Brownwood speech. “It has to set priorities. My top priority is education. When I was elected, the state had something like thirty education goals. Now I’ve refined it to one: excellence in reading for every child.”

His other major proposal will be more tax cuts, an ever-popular GOP theme. Bush will ask the Legislature to grant a franchise-tax exemption to 176,000 small business owners with annual sales under $100,000. The cost is a relatively small $35 million. He also wants a franchise-tax credit for companies doing research and development in Texas. That is a big-ticket item, about $227 million. He would like to see a cut in a consumer tax if enough money is left over. “I’m not going to be the guy who promises something he can’t deliver,” he said. “I don’t believe in ‘ready, fire, aim.’”

Step 5: Don’t Pander To the Right Wing

The biggest problem for Bush is whether he can make inroads into the large right-wing vote without taking positions that will lose the respect or the allegiance of mainstream conservatives. The Bush forces are convinced that they can. They see the right not as a monolithic constituency of identical thinkers but as a loose coalition of overlapping constituencies that have in common a concern for the decline of values in American life.

One group might be called the litmus-test conservatives. Darkly pessimistic and hyperbolic, they tend to be single-issue oriented: pro-life, for example, or English-only. This group tends to equate the fate of America with the fate of their preferred issue; either you’re with them all the way or you’re a traitor to the cause. Bush will not do well with the litmus-test conservatives. He is pro-life but allows for exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. He doesn’t bash homosexuals. He favors what he calls English-plus rather than English-only, which means that every child should learn to read English as well as “recognize the richness and benefits of other languages.” (Bush himself speaks Spanish well enough that when he was asked a question en español at a media availability before his commencement speech in Dallas, he responded in kind, though with occasional Spanglish phrases like “niños out of wedlock.”) The good news for Bush is that this constituency will be split among several candidates: Buchanan, Quayle, Bauer, and Ashcroft, who won a recent presidential straw poll in South Carolina with the help of the religious right. (Bush finished second.)

The family-values conservatives are the second group. Many of them hold views similar to litmus-test conservatives, only with less militance. On right-to-life issues, for example, many are coming to understand that it is better to win battles over partial-birth abortions, late-term abortions, and parental notification than to fight over when conception begins. Family-values conservatives are highly suspicious of government intervention in areas they regard as the family’s province, such as sex education and children’s health insurance. Bush will count on his own family ties and his character to earn him some support from this group.

Cultural conservatives, people who want to change values by changing the culture, make up the third group. Bush’s self-descriptive term is “compassionate conservative.” (“Compassionate” is shorthand for “not like Pat Buchanan.”) The cultural conservatives aren’t interested in turning doctors into criminals or stripping legal aliens of their government benefits. They are interested in changing the values of Americans, particularly young Americans. “I have seen the culture change once in my lifetime,” Bush said in Cincinnati. “I believe it can change again.” The values he advocates have little to do with government, except that government offers a bully pulpit: accepting individual responsibility, saying no to drugs and violence, abstaining from sex until you’ve found a person you want to marry. Speaking to the Plano High School graduating class at Southern Methodist University’s Moody Coliseum, he added two others: “Baseball should always be played outdoors with wooden bats” and “No matter how old you are and no matter what you do, you can never escape your mother.” This is the group on the right that Bush will do best with, simply because he is one of them.

Step 6: Develop a Winning Strategy

Even before he makes the decision to run, Bush is going to have to think about his campaign team. This much is certain: His presidential campaign will not look like one of his father’s. It will not be run by Jim Baker or anyone else from the old guard. Nor is it likely to be run by Karl Rove, the Austin political consultant who is Bush’s closest political adviser; Rove is more valuable in a guru role independent of a campaign organization. A recent Fortune magazine story about Bush reported that the finance co-chairs would be Brad Freeman of Los Angeles and Heinz Prechter of Detroit, which must have greatly amused Midland oilman Don Evans, the chairman of Bush’s gubernatorial campaign, who would have the financial duties in a presidential campaign.

Bush must also have a strategy in mind because his delayed entry into the presidential race will put him behind in Iowa and New Hampshire, traditionally the two most important states whose delegates are selected before March 1 of the election year. Deciding what to do about them is one of the hardest calls Bush (and Rove) will have to make. Iowa especially is a grind. Its delegates are chosen in caucuses, not in a primary. It requires time-consuming, person-to-person wooing of activists—retail politics instead of the wholesale politics of modern media campaigns. Bush’s money can’t help him there. New Hampshire used to be a retail politics state, but that is changing; now it requires persona and message as well as physical presence. A candidate can spend a lot of time and money there, only to find that a victory is worth a lot more in publicity than delegates.

What may not be widely understood yet is that Iowa and New Hampshire are not what they used to be. In 1988 and again in 1996 South Carolina proved to be a much more important state than New Hampshire. It started the stampede to the eventual winner—first Bush, then Dole. And anyway, the California Senate has already passed a bill that would move up the state’s primary in 2000 to March 7. Several western states are trying to coordinate their elections for the same day or perhaps a week earlier.

This compression of the election season means that Iowa and New Hampshire are nothing more than tidbits before the feast; so it’s possible that Bush will pass them up altogether, risk the media’s wrath at being deprived of an early test of the front-runner, and concentrate on California. He can count on Texas and, in all likelihood, Florida, where his brother Jeb should be elected governor this fall. Those three states have enough delegates to get him two-fifths of the way to the nomination.

Step 7: Make a Decision

To most people, Bush’s decision is a foregone conclusion: Of course he will run. The nomination is practically sitting there waiting for him. “I know in my bones he will run,” a member of his father’s White House team told me. “This is his life now.” The only people who have expressed any doubt to me are some of Bush’s aides, and that may well be part of the spin that he hasn’t made up his mind.

Still, one cannot spend much time talking to Bush about his future without sensing a real reluctance. “I’m not sure that I want to spend the rest of my life living in the bubble,” he told me. Bush does not like Washington. In 1988 he and his family moved there to be part of his father’s campaign for president. In 1992 he was part of the campaign again, but he continued to live in Texas. “He doesn’t like the scene, all the phony baloney,” said Republican consultant Mary Matalin, who was part of those campaigns. He makes no secret of his distaste for the chip-on-the-shoulder hostility of the Washington press corps. He loves being governor. He likes being able to run off to a ball game or drop in for a Sunday service at a black church now and then. He is having the time of his life. If he hasn’t made up his mind to run for president, it’s because he doesn’t want to face the decision. “I’ve never been a person who has had every chapter of my life planned out,” he told me. “A year before I ran [for governor], I wouldn’t have thought I was going to do it. I did not run for governor to be president of the United States.”

George W. Bush is very pleased with who he is, which has not always been the case. (Eleven years ago, he decided he was drinking too much and quit.) Can he run for president and stay the same person? “That’s the question, isn’t it?” Bush said as we returned to Austin from Brownwood in the twin-engine King Air 350 that he uses for his campaign trips. “You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror.”

One option for Bush, if he does not run for president, is to make money—a lot of money, more even than the estimated $10 million he stands to get from his share of the sale of the Texas Rangers baseball team. But when I asked him about doing deals to get rich, he professed no interest. “I’ve got more money than I ever thought I’d have,” he said. “After a certain point, money is only good for giving away.”

“Then I think you’re going to run,” I said, as the plane made its final approach to Austin. “If you don’t have something else in mind, the momentum will just carry you along with it. It’s like what happened to me this spring. I only wanted to paint my house, not sell it, but the next thing I knew, the house was gone.”

“Houses don’t cry,” Bush said. I knew that was a reference to his sixteen-year-old twin girls, who don’t want to live their college years in the bubble. “I say in my speeches that parenting is the most important thing a person does. Parenting requires sacrifice. I believe that. It’s my legacy.”

An aide came up holding a cell phone. “Channel 36 is here,” she said. “They want to interview you.” Bush looked out the window as we taxied up and saw the camera crew. “What are they doing outside?” he said. “Find a better background.” And then he walked down the steps, and the camera closed in.

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