Jewish World Review May 30, 2000/ 25 Iyar, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AT A LARGE GATHERING of conservatives soon after the 1992 election, the introductory speaker began thus: "Welcome to the midpoint of the Bush-Clinton era."
The applause was wild and knowing. It was the response of conservatives who so disdained George Bush (pere) that they pretended there was not a dime's worth of difference between the candidates. Eight years later, they know better.
Which explains the almost total acquiescence of the right to the nomination of George Bush (fils). W. was inadvertently helped by John McCain. McCain's challenge allowed Bush to play the conservative, a role he would have had a hard time inventing for himself had it not been thrust upon him. McCain cured Bush of the kind of conservative credential problem that plagued his father all his political life.
Since the primaries, Bush has been playing his cards well. He has been out, often beneath national radar, giving heavy, sober policy speeches, most notably on education, taxes, Social Security and national defense.
The speeches are larded, purposefully, with substance. On education, Bush offers a mild form of school choice and teacher accountability. On taxes, a middling cut. (The five-year cumulative amounts are designed to make the cuts sound misleadingly large. Divide by five and you get annual tax cuts of just one percent of GDP.) On Social Security, a privatization variant that would allow younger workers to invest a small portion of their payroll taxes on their own. And on defense, less reliance on parchment promises, more on muscle and missile defense.
It amounts to a moderate reform agenda. (Al Gore's incessant charge of a "risky"-this, "risky"-that scheme is beginning to earn ridicule.) But Bush's objective is not just to position himself on the issues--this is one election that will not be decided on the issues--but to alter the perception of Bush's character. The objective is to narrow the gravitas gap. The speeches are working. The candidate of unbearable lightness is beginning to acquire weight.
Throughout the primary season, Bush gave "leadership" as the raison d'etre of his candidacy. It sounded weird. His only proof of leadership was his governorship of Texas, which, if it were a country, would have the 11th largest economy in the world, he liked to say. But in Texas, the governor's office is weak. And one is hard pressed to point to any sterling act of leadership displayed there by Bush.
He is displaying it, however, on the campaign trail. These reforms present Bush as a candidate willing to offer new ideas that carry political risk, even proposing changes in Social Security, where offering new ideas is generally considered an act of suicide.
Bush may be hurt with some voters for wanting to tamper with Social Security. But he is likely to gain more from having the courage to do what a lame-duck President Clinton, who could far more easily have tackled it, has resolutely refused to do.
Moreover, Bush's policy speeches are demonstrating that he actually can--as he promised he would--surround himself with skilled and substantial people in all areas of policy. One of those who worked on an early foreign policy speech was astonished by the extent and breadth of its vetting up and down the adviser line. In thoroughness and bureaucratic redundancy, he marveled, "They staffed it like a presidential address."
And finally, the speeches supply the beef for Bush's claim to be a reformer. In South Carolina, remember, he suddenly metamorphosed into a "reformer with results." The claim was defensible, but the defense required much creative political accounting. Now, however, Bush is earning the title. He is challenging the educational establishment with his school reforms, the elderly lobby with Social Security and conventional wisdom with his across-the-board tax cuts.
Gore, ever the reactionary liberal, tries to portray all this as "risky" conservative radicalism. An odd strategy. It was used in 1980 against Ronald Reagan, with no success. And Reagan had a history of uncompromising and often unconventional views that made a charge of extremism at least plausible.
You look at George W. Bush and it is very difficult to see an extremist lurking inside. People perceive him as a lightweight perhaps, but not as a radical. The core issue in 2000, as in 1980, is whether the challenger is up to the job. Ironically, Gore's tactic--the relentless charges that Bush would take the country down dangerous new roads--may help Bush raise his stature by validating his claim to be a leader and a
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