But Bush can run to the left of Dole in ’96 or his dad in ’92 without risking the wrath of the GOP right. He is the beneficiary of conservative exhaustion. Since the twin debacles of the government shutdown and the impeachment wars, the right has been in retreat — its economic agenda of the past 20 years largely realized, its anti-statist offensive largely abandoned, its social agenda now recognized as largely unrealizable.
Ideology is in decline, and Republicans are so hungry for a winner that they are beginning to read contradictory meanings into Dub’s deliberately vague formulations. Last week in California, Bush said that he was "against the spirit of [the anti-immigrant Proposition] 187 for my state" and said of Proposition 209, which ended state affirmative action, that he supported "the spirit of no quotas, no preferences," while emphasizing how important it was to keep open the doors of opportunity for all races. And yet, during last week’s trip, he won the support of 209 author Ward Connerly, who heard in Bush’s evasions an affirmation of the 209 position, even as Bush was doing everything he could to distance himself from that particular cause. This is the mark of a successful campaign: The last presidential candidate I’ve seen who could pick up supporters on both sides of a hot issue was Bill Clinton in 1992.
But Bush has got a long way to go before he can be acclaimed — in electoral terms — as the GOP’s Clinton. For one thing, Clinton ran in ’92 only after painstakingly neutralizing all the GOP’s traditional wedge issues: He favored the death penalty, he opposed welfare, he attacked Jesse Jackson. Bush comes to the campaign with a record of opposition to gun control and abortion rights, two issues on which the Democrats are sure to clobber him in California and in swing counties around the nation.
Second, Clinton was a phenomenal campaigner — able to connect with virtually any audience on both a political and a visceral level. Bush may be a remarkable magnet for campaign cash, but there’s nothing special about his appearance on the hustings. At his fund-raiser at the Century Plaza last week, he entered the room and proceeded to go table to table, greeting his donors. After thanking 2,300 guests for shelling out a cool $2.3 million, however, he arrived at the podium exhausted, and labored through a stale, flat and weary recitation of a stump speech that, like his campaign, is only 1 month old. At minimum, the candidate’s manners are stepping on the candidate’s message.
More fundamentally, George W. Bush is the best-funded pig in a poke in the history of American politics. He has run for and held just one public office, and that during a time of exceptional prosperity. He boasts a reputation for being able to work with Texas Democrats, and poll ratings as high as they are likely to be ephemeral. On the downside, the policy advisers surrounding him are disproportionately those who oversaw the economic and foreign policies of his father: that is, recession at home and the descent-into-chaos of the former USSR and Yugoslavia abroad. His record of navigating rough political or governmental waters is all but nonexistent. Even more than the buyers of Internet stocks, the thousands of Republicans investing in Dub had better pray this particular bubble doesn’t burst.