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Irrational Exuberance

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Move over, Amazon.com. Yield, Yahoo. There’s a new start-up out there that makes you guys look as old-school, blue-chip and safe as GE, GM and GTE. Price-to-earnings ratio? All the "earnings" are projections — and yet, this is the hottest stock in years.

To be sure, there’s an establishment ring to the name — George W. Bush — and to his résumé. Son of a president. Yale. Oil bidness. Texas governor going on four and a half years now. Centrist. Smiley fella.

But in truth, these are modest bona fides. Texas has done well during the current national economic boom, but so have Mississippi, Maine and the Dakotas. Both the Democratic presidential aspirants and any number of the Republicans have far more experience with national and international affairs than the governor (who, to distinguish him from his father, is increasingly referred to as W., or Dub for short). Almost all the other candidates have more platform than Dub, who’s still in a kind of position-free zone. But Dub has one thing that none of the others can even approach: $36 million in campaign contributions, raised in just four short months.

The figure, unveiled last week during Bush’s first campaign swing through California, is breathtaking. By way of comparison, it is twice what Al Gore, the sitting vice president, has been able to raise over a far longer period of time. It is $4 million more than Republican nominee Bob Dole was able to raise throughout all of 1995-96. And it is around three times the combined total of what all of Bush’s current GOP opponents have raised.

Moreover, the Dub bandwagon is just starting to roll. He hasn’t even held any fund-raisers yet in New York or Chicago or in much of his New South base. Unless Dub implodes somewhere down the campaign trail, we may be looking at the first $100 million candidate. A great deal has gone into the making of such a phenomenon — and Dub himself may be the least of it.

Any attempt to explain the Dub Bubble must begin with the Republicans’ propensity to anoint their presidential front-runner. Historically, the modern GOP nominates its establishment’s choice: There hasn’t been a come-from-behind outsider nominee since Barry Goldwater in ’64, and Goldwater’s performance at the polls that November — he carried six states — ended whatever appeal the cult of the outsider held for Republican presidential voters. (By contrast, the Democrats have had three outsider nominees — George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton — during this period.)

And Dub is nothing if not the establishment’s chosen one. Over 20 Republican governors and over half the GOP delegation in the House have already endorsed him. The governors’ support was the sine qua non. Fresh off their impeachment debacle, congressional Republicans lacked the political or moral authority either to provide a credible candidate of their own or even to instruct their own troops. Fortunately, the governors were insulated from the impeachment follies by the genius of the federal system. Dub, for one, ducked the whole controversy, never weighing in on the question of whether or not Clinton should be driven from office.

As a consequence of the GOP landslide of ’94, there are a lot of Republican governors — 31, to be exact — and one of them was likely to emerge as the establishment choice. Some, like New York’s George Pataki, come from large states that aren’t going to vote Republican on the presidential line for the foreseeable future. Some, like Dub, come from solidly Republican big states. Almost all the big swing states of the Midwest have GOP governors, but the only govs with track records — Michigan’s John Engler and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson — combine a parochial perspective with the charisma quotient of creamed spinach. Which refocused the governors’ attention — and that of their fund-raising networks — back on Dub.

The Dub Bubble is also the result of the economy, stupid. With presidential contributions statutorily limited to $1,000 per person, it takes a huge number of people with ample discretionary incomes to amass $36 million in a few months. In fact, by last week, 75,000 people had coughed up an average of $480 to the Bush campaign.

What a fitting farewell salute this gusher of greenbacks was for outgoing Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, who left office last Friday. In his six and one-half years running Clinton’s economic shop, Rubin was adamant that the administration never do anything to forfeit the trust or betray the interests of the financial community. Deflating the deficit, fostering free trade, Rubin oversaw the creation of immense wealth for the richest 10 percent of Americans, while producing considerably more modest gains for those further down the economic ladder. And over the past two years, that 10 percent has had enough money to fuel a boom in speculative stocks.

Of which the hottest, and most speculative, is Dub.

At first listen, Dub doesn’t seem the kind of candidate that the zealots of the GOP would warm to. His stump speech is filled with references to compassion, to the nonwhite poor that society needs to educate, to the value of immigrants. Jack Kemp campaigned across the GOP for decades on these themes and never got anywhere. But Kemp sounded more than a little obsessional on these topics (and on a few other lulus, like going back to the gold standard). Dub, whatever his faults, is nobody’s obsessive — even as a fund-raiser. Word is, he hasn’t even had to make any fund-raising calls himself; his buds do it all for him.

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.


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