Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 1999 /15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760
Ready for The Big Leagues?
AUSTIN, Tex.—The columnist, who writes about politics to support his
baseball habit, asks the former part-owner of the Texas Rangers about
possible solutions to the revenue imbalances that threaten major league
baseball's competitive balance. Gov. George W. Bush seems to relish
talking about a subject close to his heart and distant from presidential
campaigning, which is a grind akin to a 162-game season.
One way to measure a politician's mind is to get him talking about
something other than politics--fishing, cars, music, the subject hardly
matters. For half an hour Bush discusses such baseball business as luxury
taxes, revenue sharing, the amateur draft and contraction (closing a couple
of chronically ill franchises), demonstrating mastery of the arcana, and a
Segueing into politics, Bush is obviously as comfortable with himself as he
is in the easy chair into which he crumbles, almost invertebrate, in the
parlor of the governor's mansion. When Bush speaks of doing this or that
after he has the nomination, or as president, it is without bravado. He
simply knows he is passing a test.
The presidential selection process administers, unforgivingly, this pertinent
test: Can a candidate, who if elected must staff a vast government to
advance a complex agenda, orchestrate a continental campaign? Only
Bush among the Republicans is taking, let alone passing that test.
The media's monomania about Bush's fund-raising--an obsession shared
by Elizabeth Dole, judging by her grating withdrawal statement--reflects a
refusal to recognize that Bush has lots of money because he has lots of
supporters, not vice versa. He has them partly because of his father's fate:
Republicans at first learned, and then painfully unlearned, the wrong lesson
from the Bush presidency.
Having watched Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George
Mitchell bedevil and often best President Bush, many Republicans revived
the conservative aspiration of congressional supremacy. They thought:
Congress really can be a co-equal branch, and controlling it might even be
preferable to holding the presidency, which is the engine of energetic
Those ideas died during such Republican debacles as the 1995
government shutdown and the rout of Republicans in last autumn's budget
negotiations with Clinton. These gave Republicans their own monomania:
They must win the White House, and do so with an executive unapologetic
about wielding power.
Campaign headquarters here contains the cream of the crop of Republican
practitioners of the inseparable crafts of making and presenting policy.
They are recasting conservatism by expunging the traditional conservative
ambivalence about presidential power.
Hence the presence on the cluttered desk of chief speechwriter Mike
Gerson of Terry Eastland's book, "Energy in the Executive: The Case for
the Strong Presidency." Eastland's title comes from Alexander Hamilton's
Federalist Paper Number 70: "Energy in the executive is a leading
character in the definition of good government." Eastland's thesis is that
"the strong presidency is necessary to effect ends sought by most
Conservatives are viscerally suspicious of power made potent by being
concentrated in one person, and are wary of the plebiscitary idea of
democracy inherent in the idea of a "presidential nation." Furthermore,
modern conservatism originally defined itself in opposition to FDR and the
But one of Bush's closest advisers, Karl Rove, is a history buff fascinated
by William McKinley, the conservative Republican who helped pioneer the
modern presidency by proclaiming his election in 1896 a personal
mandate--"the commanding verdict of the people." His Republican
successor, Theodore Roosevelt, personalized the office by his ebullience.
TR's Republican successor, William Howard Taft, ratified the
personalization by his then-novel reference to "the Roosevelt policies."
The rhetoric that fueled Republican capture of the House of
Representatives five years ago was Jeffersonian: that government is best
that governs least, and so on. But rather than betokening the dawn of a
new era, that rhetoric was the final flaring of an old impulse.
It is now obvious to all but ideologically blinkered conservatives:
Americans talk like Jeffersonians but are content to live--no, insist on
living--with a large, Hamiltonian government. The Republican House called
the country's bluff, and the country turned out to be bluffing.
This, then, is why Bush's campaign is remarkable for more than its
operational proficiency. He is comfortable around people of high
intellectual quality, and has a cadre of them devising theoretical justification
for his instinctive proclivity--call it "strong-executive conservatism."
The former president's first son favors filial piety, but only up to a point: A
second Bush presidency would be more muscular than the first in
Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.
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©1999, Washington Post Writer's Group