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Jewish World Review March 19, 1999 /2 Nissan 5759

Ben and Daniel Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Bush-whacked Bush-whackers

( THE POLITICAL COMMENTARIAT has anointed the square-jawed Texas Governor with the familiar political name as the "inevitability" candidate.

Translation: George W. Bush has surged way past his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, because he is seen by a troubled party as the Republican who can win in November of 2000.

Meanwhile, the ideological purity wing of the GOP has already pronounced itself on the "compassionate conservatism" theme put forth by Bush: They are the "weasel words" of a "Gore Lite."

But George W. seems to understand something that the commentariat doesn't: GOP voters want more than a candidate who can win in November. They want a conservative candidate who can win in November. And George W. also seems to understand something that the purity-peddlers should: Conservative voters don't see "compassion" as a compromise designed to lure non-traditional voters. They see it as central to the conservative creed.

Being the "inevitability" candidate means you have lots of endorsements, triple-A fund-raising prospects, media buzz --- and expectations so high that anything short of total domination during the primary season will be interpreted as failure. The primary graveyards are filled with the remains of "inevitable nominees" like George Romney and Ed Muskie. "Inevitability" candidacies tend to be self-fulfilling and self-referential: The candidate sells his ability to sell himself, like an overvalued Internet stock.

But starting with the March 7 Austin launch of his presidential exploratory committee, Bush demonstrated that he intends to sell something more than an illusion of his own invincibility. George W. means to sell conservatism.

Since Ronald Reagan's departure from the scene, many conservatives have tried to rebrand the conservative philosophy as inclusive, optimistic and open- hearted. President Bush had compassion, but he lacked credibility on the conservative street. His "kinder, gentler" pitch sounded like mush to the right. Newt Gingrich understood conservatism as a compassionate creed, and was able to move conservative audiences to tears. But he couldn't sell it beyond his conservative base, no matter how many lion cubs he frolicked with.

Bush's delivery at his national announcement was at times halting and uncertain. At other times it was a little over-caffeinated, like Dan Quayle's national emergence in 1988. Bush lacked the high gloss of seasoned national campaigners who have smooth auto-pilot responses for any question. But this only humanized him. After seven years of Clinton, maybe the country has learned to distrust slickness.

But in terms of message, Bush created an aura of inclusion and caring without giving away conservative philosophy. He called for an "English-plus" instead of "English-only" approach to teaching immigrant students. If there's a difference we'd like to know it. No one preaching so-called English-only is against kids learning a foreign language. By demolishing a straw man Bush helped undermine the stereotype of nativism and xenophobia that has attached itself to conservatism.

The Republican party has gotten a bad rap on immigration and inclusion. For example, it would be hard to think of more pro-immigration politicians than Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Phil Gramm. Bush isn't challenging conservatives or conservatism; he is challenging the bad rap.

He called for retaining the "pro-life tenor" of the GOP, without tying himself specifically to the ban-abortion plank in the GOP platform. He endorsed abortion restrictions that a large majority of Americans support (a ban on "partial-birth" abortions, no federal funding and parental notification) but reminded people that the GOP is a large coalition that can accommodate pro-choicers, like Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a member of his exploratory committee. He specifically ruled in the possibility of a pro-choice running mate.

Yes, Bush will be pressed by the right to endorse the anti-abortion plank and commit to appointing Supreme Court justices pledged to overturning Roe v. Wade. But he knows he does not have to get into this bidding war. Some in the pro-life wing will swallow any misgivings about Bush and vote for him in the primaries because they're tired of losing. The rest will go elsewhere -- but their votes will be split among Buchanan, Quayle, Forbes, Bauer, Keyes, Smith. In a field stuffed with prohibitionists, Bush can afford to be seen merely as a restrictionist.

In 2000 there will be some new advantages to being the front-runner. Bush will likely get incoming artillery fire from the candidates of the right.

Normally this could soften him up for Al Gore in the general election in November. But because of the heavily front-loaded primary calendar in 2000, the front-runner can wrap up the nomination early, preempting months of trench warfare.

Such a big-win front-running scenario might also give Bush the ability to choose his state delegate slates in a way that will allow him to shape the tenor of the always-troubling Republican convention and platform. The Bush delegates should be his delegates. All he has to do is insist that they act like compassionate conservatives.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.


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02/11/99:Celebrated lives writ short
01/28/99:Who's afraid of the Euro?
01/25/99:The Vast Right-wing conspiracy and Danny Williams: The last word (hopefully)
01/14/99:Sum of scandal? It's OK
12/31/98: Predictions? I don't think so
12/11/98: Better dead than read?
11/25/98: Polling the Pilgrims
11/13/98: The icon and the iconoclast
11/06/98: What happened? Nothing!
10/28/98: Two billion never-borns!
10/22/98: Election pundits know nothing
10/15/98: The too-big-to-fail doctrine
9/29/98: The Jerk Factor at work
9/24/98: American civic engagement thriving
9/16/98: Anatomy of a cover-up
9/09/98: Draft Joe Lieberman!
9/03/98: Get over it, folks
8/28/98: McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

©1999, Creators Syndicate