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Establishment Boys

After some weeks trooping around with the various presidential campaigns, I‘ve concluded that the writer who could best cover both the Bush and Gore efforts would be T.S. Eliot -- poet laureate of dry rot. A fundamental lifelessness, a stiffness and stillness of spirit, seeps through both endeavors, though at the moment it’s only the Bush campaign that is paying a price for its hollowness. Tactically, the Gore people have been much more adept in beating back their challenger. But neither candidate seems to stand for very much, and neither has a campaign capable of inspiring actual people to give up an afternoon to walk a precinct on its candidate‘s behalf.

Initially, George W. Bush came before the voters as a compendium of negative virtues. He was not Pete Wilson, who set race against race. He was not Newt Gingrich, who warred on government and Democrats to the point of closing down the former and impeaching the leader of the latter. He was not Bill Clinton -- but his strategy was largely a Republican version of Clinton’s triangulation.

While Bush was making clear who he was not, his party was busily shedding its own skins. Today‘s GOP has become an elephant’s graveyard of discarded themes: anti-communism and military resolve (where are those Russkies when you need them?); racial wedge politics (too many nonwhites in the electorate these days); staunch opposition to welfare, deficits and liberal permissiveness (damn that Clinton); staunch support for anti-statism (damn that Gingrich) and neo-Puritanism (damn that Kenneth Starr). All that remains of the old Republican religion is the belief in tax cuts, particularly on the highest incomes -- the supply-side faith that has sustained the party for the past two decades. The Wall Street Journal preached it, the Congressional leadership parroted it, and W. made it the programmatic centerpiece of his campaign.

Problem is, the demand for supply-side has all but vanished. In New Hampshire, in South Carolina, the Bush forces have flayed John McCain for proposing a puny tax-cut proposal, so small that it could have come from a Democrat. And in New Hampshire and now in South Carolina, they are discovering that nobody really favors a tax cut on the highest incomes -- at a time when the highest incomes don‘t really seem to need a further boost, and when the projected surplus could otherwise be devoted to shoring up entitlement programs and paying down the national debt.

Thus, the silence that characterized W.’s disastrous week in New Hampshire was, so to speak, overdetermined. The problem wasn‘t simply that his advisers thought he could play out the clock, or that the less he exposed himself to the public and the media, the lower the chance of an epic gaffe. The problem was also that, as the personification of the Republican establishment, he had all but run out of message. At least twice during his baleful week in the snow, I heard him allude to his coming pronouncement on tort reform -- almost as if he knew he had nothing to say and that referring his listeners to the promise of things he planned to say would somehow overcome his current content deficiency. (And certainly as if he knew that tort reform wouldn’t do the trick either, so he‘d allude to it rather than actually lay out his position.)

While W. was lapsing into a nervous silence, John McCain was merrily yakking his way to a stunning victory. The contrast wasn’t simply that of a media-shy frontrunner to a media-dependent challenger. It was also doctrinal: As Bush was running out of GOP gospel, McCain was reinventing Republicanism for a time of surplus and prosperity.

For starters, McCain is the first Republican candidate to make a point of putting the divisions of Vietnam behind us. For decades, the Republicans have stoked whatever resentment they could against the American political elites that opposed the war and still have the temerity to run the nation -- Bill Clinton, first and foremost. McCain, by contrast, has gone out of his way to build friendships with a number of prominent anti-war activists of yore, which plainly has endeared him to a press corps composed disproportionately of ‘60s peaceniks. As my historian friend Jim Chapin has noted, McCain’s campaign is in this regard much like William McKinley‘s in 1896. McKinley made a point of stopping the Republicans’ quadrennial replay of the Civil War of the 1860s -- as McCain now has done for the civil war of the 1960s.

Second, McCain has embraced, however tentatively and partially, the idea that public purposes are not inherently evil -- that government can do decent things, that tax cuts are not the best use for the money now flowing into government. McCain has attacked Bush‘s tax giveaway as a sop to the rich, has proposed instead to bolster Social Security and Medicare, has proposed closing corporate loopholes, has even spoken vaguely of universal health insurance, though he seems clueless as to how to bring that about.

None of this would be notable for a Democrat -- and, as a sworn enemy of minimum-wage hikes, unions and many environmental protections, McCain would make a pretty poor Democrat even in these triangulated times. But for a national Republican leader, these are fairly revolutionary positions, further compounded by McCain’s heretical insistence on campaign-finance reform. The emerging mish-mosh of McCainism repudiates much of the world-view of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, for years the most powerful intellectual influence on party doctrine, in favor of that propounded by the editors of The Weekly Standard, who have supported a renascent conservative activism more in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt.

The McCain phenomenon is as personal as it is political, of course. But his advantage over Bush isn‘t simply that of a more compelling life story, or personality. If W. often appears to be darting glances into the wings in hopes that someone or something will cut short his stump speech, the problem is as much with his material as his attitude. With George W. Bush, establishment Republicanism has simply run out of things to say.

At first listen, such is not the problem with Al Gore. The vice president’s approach to an issue is to talk it to death, smother it with statistics, trace its antecedents and footnote its particulars. To attend a Gore town meeting is to come away with a nagging suspicion that he‘s running for National Bibliographer.

Hack your way through the details and detritus, though, and you come across a simple, and compelling, message: Al Gore is running as the trustworthy steward of our prosperity, which that doofus fratboy Bush imperils with his tax cuts. (That this message is of limited use should the GOP nomination go to McCain -- whose tax cut, and projected defense budget, may well be smaller than Gore’s -- is doubtless the occasion for some scrambling among Gore‘s strategists and opposition research ops.)

Gore is the candidate of continuity and incrementalism -- or, as he puts it, the ”step-by-step“ approach to universal programs in health coverage, child care and the like. The problem here is that the incremental programs that Gore wants to incrementally increase haven’t been particularly successful. It was the failure of the Children‘s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to extend health coverage to more poor kids that prompted Bill Bradley to propose his non-incremental health program.

In almost every way imaginable, Gore’s is a status quo campaign. His policy people are drawn from the Clinton staffers who devised the minimalist policies of the past five years; his volunteers are drawn disproportionately from the Beltway bureaucrats who‘ve administered those policies. With the definite exception of his labor backers, who actually favor genuine social change, the Gore people don’t have a boat-rocker in the bunch.

And thus far, this anti-agitational spirit seems to be working. Bill Bradley, who tried, however inexpertly, to make the case for a more activist government, fell short in Iowa and New Hampshire, and seems now to be falling ever deeper into obscurity. The insurgent of the month is John McCain, and the fact that all of this month‘s primaries are exclusively Republican (in Delaware, South Carolina, Arizona, Michigan, Virginia and Washington) means that the media’s, and the public‘s, attention deficit disorder toward Bradley will only grow worse. Inattention is Gore’s friend, by contrast. The March 7 primaries in California, New York and 12 other states will creep up on unsuspecting Democrats; Bradley will be but a blip in public consciousness, and Gore will emerge the nominee.

He is as garrulous as Bush is tongue-tied, and he speaks for a party whose causes, while they‘ve been muted, have not yet collapsed. But the capacity to inspire eludes Gore and Bush both, and from top to bottom, their campaigns are vast cavalcades of careerism.

slobodan dimitrov, McCain; Anne Fishbein, Bush

John McCain: Healing civil war of the ’60s

George W.: Out of things to say

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