Grading George W.
How is the “compassionate conservative” faring in his non-campaign for president?
George W. Bush faces some tough fights over his proposals to cut $2 billion in local property taxes and end social promotion of students who can’t read, but one goal, at least, has already been met. “I promise I will spend no more than three fourths of the time some people spend on these kinds of addresses,” he told lawmakers at the start of his State of the State speech. “You see, I am a compassionate speechmaker.” It was a teasing line, part self-referential (to his efforts to define himself as a “compassionate conservative”) and part veiled reference to Bill Clinton (albeit the most benign unflattering remark any Republican politician has made about the president all year). The trouble is that the time for teasing is running short. The turning of the calendar from February to March signifies the unofficial starting point for the presidential race next year. The New Hampshire primary is set for February 22, 2000; California, New York, and possibly Florida will follow on March 7. By the time Texas gets into the act on March 14, the race will almost surely be over, as almost 50 percent of the delegates will have been chosen.
How does Bush stack up at the starting gate? He leads the polls by a huge margin, and he continues to get heavy attention from the national—and world—press. For the State of the State, reporters came from such distant points as England, Japan, and New Zealand. But he hasn’t been tested yet, and no one gets through a presidential race without being tested. Here’s his report card so far:
Lining up support: A
Bush expects strong backing from his fellow GOP governors—and not just brother Jeb in Florida. Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania are among the states led by Bush allies. For several months he has been hosting key Republicans at private meetings in the Governor’s Mansion. Politicos from Iowa paid their own way to meet with Bush in early February; heavy-duty fundraisers from California and Florida were scheduled to arrive on consecutive days late in the month. Since Bush is deliberately keeping out-of-state trips to a minimum until after the legislative session, the mountains will have to come to Muhammed—and they are.
Donors and fundraisers from all over the country have been calling for months and need only the go-ahead. Bush should have more money than anyone except Steve Forbes. Still unresolved: Should Bush forgo federal matching funds—and avoid the spending limits that come with them—in the primary? One argument for doing so: In 1996 Bob Dole ran out of money in the primaries and was prohibited from raising more until he was formally nominated. Without money, Dole couldn’t campaign.
Defining himself: Incomplete
It remains to be seen whether the “compassionate conservative” label can travel. Rivals Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle, and Forbes have already attacked it by saying, in effect, that it is a dilution of conservatism. Conservative columnist George Will suggested that Bush was copying Clinton’s therapeutic political style. Compassionate conservatism is clearly Bush’s effort to appeal to the political middle that the GOP has been losing; he hopes to have his cake and eat it too by endorsing hard-right positions without the hard-right rhetoric. Thus Bush embraced school vouchers in his State of the State speech, but his reason was not the ideological one of giving parents the right to choose how to use their tax dollars. Instead, it was compassion for kids: “We must not trap students in low-performing schools.”
Television technique: C-
In a controlled environment like a thirty-second spot, Bush comes across very well. But in a debate or an interview, he lacks polish. His performance last fall in the sole gubernatorial debate with Garry Mauro was abysmal. He looked uncomfortable and he used obscure terms known only to government insiders (“PUF” and “HEAF,” two funds that help underwrite state universities). During a recent C-SPAN interview, his head bobbed and weaved like a boxer’s; when the interview, which was supposed to focus on education, turned to matters of personal introspection, he appeared uninterested. In a way, Bush is to be admired for not being a soundbite candidate, but television punishes those who are not and rewards those who are.
His core message is that he can win. When he ran for governor in 1994, Democrats held every statewide office except agriculture commissioner and had majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Today the Republicans hold every statewide office, have a majority in the Senate, and are just four seats short of a majority in the House. The problem for Bush is that he has far less familiarity with national issues than did any of the past four Republican presidents—Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Dad—so he will have to translate his state achievements into national policies. This will be no easy feat, since Bush’s top priority is education, something many Republicans do not want to see the national government getting involved with. Bush’s answer will be to propose doing what he did in Texas: freeing school districts from central government regulations. The second part of his message will be that he is a tax-cutter. His school property-tax cuts for 1997 and 1999 could total as much as $3 billion. The trouble with cutting school property taxes, however, is that either (a) education spending drops accordingly, or (b) other taxpayers have to make up the difference. In 1999, as in 1997, Bush’s plan will result in (b), which means that his cut is really just a shift that benefits property taxpayers. Finally, he will talk about values—that his administration here presents a contrast in civility and honesty with what is currently going on in Washington.
The biggest obstacle for Bush is that he is not yet strong in the states that are the first to choose delegates: Louisiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Delaware. Together these four have only 81 of 1,986 delegates, but they are the only game in town, and the media will be looking for signs that the front-runner is weak.
Bush has to run—he’ll be the wuss of all time if he doesn’t—but his reluctance to commit is real. He doesn’t care for the gotcha style of the national media or their bait-and-switch tactics, in which he is solicited to give an interview on one subject (education, in the case of C-SPAN), only to be asked (surprise!) prying questions. He grumbles about negative coverage of his social promotion program and bristles at charges that he is backing off. He has a point, but if he is testy about this, how is he going to react to the relentlessly adversarial and often unfair coverage of a presidential campaign? He will not discuss whatever skeletons may lurk in the closet of his youth, but others will. If the compassionate conservative runs without passion, the intense pressure of a presidential campaign will eventually strip the cover from his ambivalence, and George W. Bush will not be the next president of the United States.