Jewish World Review March 8, 2001 / 13 Adar, 5761
I was wrong
All of this is true, but there is more to Bush's good times. There is, of all things, intelligence. Bush is, on one level, no toy rocket scientist. "Is our children learning?" he asked during the campaign. Oh, they is, but not, we hope, grammar from you, sir. As it happens, the level on which Bush is not intellectually impressive is the only one that most journalists respect: verbal intelligence, the ability to understand and manipulate logic and language. This is precisely the sort of intelligence Bush does not possess, and so, many journalists stupidly thought of Bush as, well, stupid. I include myself in this and hereby renounce and regret my repeated past use, in connection with Bush, of the word "pinhead."
What Bush does possess is political intelligence -- the ability to understand and manipulate people and situations. Verbal intelligence and political intelligence are not necessarily connected: Think of the Mayor Daleys, father and son. It appears that this is so with Bush. The best evidence of this is that he has shown a grasp of the same essential dynamic of politics that brought success to his immediate predecessor -- the dynamic of triangulation.
What Bill Clinton knew and what it seems Bush knows is that there are three groups of voters: a core who will vote for you if, and only if, you satisfy their nonnegotiable ideological demands; a contrapuntal anti-core, whom you can never win over but whom you may discourage; and swing voters. To win, you must satisfy the core, blunt the drive and reach of the anti-core and make yourself minimally acceptable to a majority of the swing.
Obvious, of course, but in practice, not so. Clinton brilliantly grasped the subtleties of the thing. He understood that (a) the core's nonnegotiable needs were actually very few; meet those needs absolutely and always and the core would grant you vast leeway on every other issue; (b) the post-'60s Democratic Party, forgetting this, had assumed all sorts of demands to be nonnegotiable and had thereby saddled itself with all sorts of unpopular positions (in areas such as welfare, crime and use of military force); thus (c) making it impossible for it to win a majority of the swing. So Clinton made himself the unwavering champion of his core's nonnegotiables (affirmative action, unfettered abortion, identity group representation in the distribution of power and perks). Everything else he threw up for grabs, and in the process threw away all the bad old issues that kept Democrats marginalized, and won back the swing.
Bush is now doing the same thing in reverse. Like Clinton, Bush knows that he must satisfy his core's nonnegotiables; he has moved unwaveringly to do this, most importantly on abortion and on taxes. Like Clinton, he knows that most of the swings want a nondivisive, "nice" president, and that giving ground on contentious issues will please the swing, weaken the standing of the anti-core and be tolerated by the core.
Consider Bush's support for an end to racial profiling in law enforcement. The core might regard that as giving in to race demagoguery, but it doesn't regard this as a nonnegotiable. To Bush's anti-core, though, racial profiling is a vital concern -- in fact, a nonnegotiable. The swings, meanwhile, just don't want to waste time and energy fighting about the thing. Thus, with one move, Bush's administration weakened its anti-core, which is depending heavily on selling the canard of Bush as a racist president, and pleased the swing, while not losing the slightest support with its core.
That is politics played on a high and nuanced plane of intelligence, the sort of level that signifies a natural ability -- natural political smarts. George W. Bush: smart guy. Who
03/01/01: Engagement's unseeing eye