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Jewish World Review March 8, 2001 / 13 Adar, 5761

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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Consumer Reports

Dubya's savvy: OOPS!
I was wrong -- THERE are several less than fully flattering reasons one can point to for the steady and large gains in public opinion made by President Bush: (1) He benefits from surpassing exceedingly low expectations; (2) he benefits from surpassing an exceedingly low predecessor; (3) he benefits from an easy and shallow charm, which is useful in winning over an easy and shallow press corps; and (4) he possesses the narrow mind's narrow focus, which naturally concentrates his administration's energies and the public's attention on the priorities of his agenda.

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.

Who's the dummy?

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 knew?

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


03/01/01: Engagement's unseeing eye
02/22/01: The Pardoner's false brief
02/08/01: Oops, they almost converted
02/01/01: Exit the abusers
01/25/01: The monster and the minority
01/11/01: Master money-grubber
01/11/01: Re Bipartisanship: From: The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy To: The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy
01/04/01: Faux Commotion
12/21/00: The next Martha Stewart
12/14/00: Democracy rescued
12/06/00: Gore's next task: Face reality
11/15/00: The Great Defender
11/02/00: The Democrats' delusion
10/26/00: Phony Truce
10/19/00: The Talking Cure
10/12/00: Doves' Day of Reckoning
10/05/00: Conan the veep
09/28/00: Dumb vs. Dishonest
09/21/00: Flapping furiously
09/14/00: Down AlGore's Memory Hole
08/24/00: AlGore's Flex-O-Joe
08/17/00: The Joyful Clinton Nation
08/09/00: A Calculated Risk
08/03/00: New Hope for Nice Guys
07/27/00: But What About Dad?
07/20/00: U.S. Handiwork In Sierra Leone
07/13/00: President With a Porpoise
07/06/00: The Importance of Being Earnest
06/29/00: A Press Obsession With the Death Penalty
06/21/00: Gore and the Goodies
06/15/00: Network Snooze
06/01/00: Sunshine on My Shoulders
05/24/00: Last Chance for a Hardened Prevaricator
05/17/00: Cuomo's Thought Police
05/10/00: Hammering DeLay
05/04/00: Some Closing Thoughts
04/28/00: Endangering Elian
04/19/00: Imitation Activism
04/12/00: Why they hate Bubba
04/05/00: Census and nonesense
03/29/00: The Stiffs and Their Statuettes
03/15/00: Anarchy in Kosovo
03/08/00: Reform joke
03/01/00:The Pinhead Factor
03/01/00: The Christian Right: Past Its Prime . . .
02/24/00: McCain's Majority
02/16/00: Sharpton's Supplicants
02/09/00: The GOP Pilgrims' Sad Tale
02/02/00: Fodder For the GOP
01/26/00: Million-Dollar Mediocrity
01/19/00: Campaign Reform: Let's Pretend
01/12/00: Never Again? Oh, Never Mind
01/05/00: Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In
12/22/99: Gore's TV Gambit
12/15/99: Campaigns Do Clarify
12/08/99: Kosovo's Killers
12/01/99: Not Ready for Prime Time?
11/24/99: The Company He Keeps
11/17/99: Republican Illusion
11/10/99: The Know-Nothing Media
11/03/99: Necessary Partisanship
10/27/99: Buchanan's Gift to George W. Bush
10/21/99: Who are the real friends of the poor?
10/14/99: Gore's 'courage'!?
10/08/99: Republican Stunts
09/23/99: Buchanan's folly
09/16/99: Beatty and Buchanan: That's Entertainment!
09/09/99: Puerto Rico Surprise (Cont'd)
09/02/99: Puerto Rico Surprise
08/12/99:The Age of No Class
08/05/99: Assessing Welfare Reform
07/29/99: On the Wrong Side
07/21/99: Mass Sentimentality
07/15/99: Blame Hillary
07/08/99: Guide to the Arts: For Your Summer Reading . . .
06/30/99: A Perfectly Clintonian Doctrine
06/25/99:Smorgasbord by the Sea
06/16/99: A National Calamity
06/09/99: Stumbling Forward
06/02/99: Commencement '90s-Style
05/26/99: Will we ever learn? Clintochio is a lying ...
05/19/99: Comforting Milosevic
05/13/99: Short-Order Strategists
05/06/99: Four Revolting Spectacles

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