Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2002/ 24 Shevat, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Those old chestnuts
are fully roasted -- CHESTNUTS are for roasting on an open fire on a wintry night (with a pretty girl to fetch the firewood). There's even a Christmas carol about it. But George W. Bush doesn't want his party to run on chestnuts, old, roasted or otherwise.

The president's wise men have sent out the news to the troops to get ready for ground war in November - the captains and lieutenants should prepare to fire up the ranks for door-to-door combat, with less reliance on television, and above all to be "civil" about it.

The president wants to emphasize what Republicans are for, not so much what they're against (though it's OK to be against a lot). It's all of a piece with the positive spin that, coupled with the war on terror, is giving George W. polling numbers that no president has ever before measured.

The new emphasis on civility is giving some of the old chestnut roasters in his party a bit of heartburn. The Clinton years gave the chestnut roasters not only a lot of scars but a yearning to carpet-bomb the opposition, to indulge in retribution, paid back with a vengeance.

Some of them, like Sadie Fields, the chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Christian Coalition, think this is a recipe for wimpery, that Republicans are born with an instinct to run from a fight and don't need further encouragement to bug out when the bar stools and beer bottles begin to fly. "The grass roots always worry about the seemingly few differences between the two parties, and the Republicans need to be careful not to become one party with two heads," she tells Ralph Hallow of The Washington Times. "Overall, I think the [Bush] strategy is probably OK. I don't have any problem with candidates saying what they are for. People are tired of really negative campaigns.

"However, you have to give the grass roots something to energize them so they come out and work for you. You have to point up the differences."

What Sadie Fields and like-minded Republicans worry about is the Republican eagerness to shade those differences, to run on the traditional party platform of "vote Republican, we're not as bad as you think."

There's a painful history. The men running the Bush re-election campaign in '92 were openly contemptuous of the most loyal base, the conservatives who provided the winning margin - and the winning enthusiasm - against Michael Dukakis four years earlier. The campaign chairman came to lunch with the editors of this newspaper to deliver the message that the true believers should get lost until Election Day, that they would show up to vote because they had no place else to go. On Election Day, however, it turned out that they did, in fact, have some place else to go. The rest, like the incumbent president, was history, and the men responsible for the debacle moved on to cozy corporate nests with a minimum of mourning. "I received good advice and bad advice," the former president told me years later. "I took the bad advice."

George W. seems to have taken that painful lesson to heart, and his party, buoyed by his poll numbers and warmed, like the rest of us, by the resurgent patriotism abroad in the land, is eager to follow. But some, conservatives within the party and without, have yet to turn Bill Clinton loose. Some of them are as sad as he is that he is not around for them to berate, flay, roast and reprove. They don't understand that Mr. Clinton is far more effective than others at mocking and embarrassing himself. He needs no help from anyone. Only last week he held himself up to ridicule in Jerusalem, arriving late for an appointment with Ariel Sharon while he went through the government offices to schmooze in the steno pool for a squeeze and a grope.

Anyone with a yen for a Clinton fix next fall will find adequate opportunity. No fewer than six Clinton confederates are seeking governorships: Janet Reno in Florida, Bill Richardson in New Mexico, James Blanchard in Michigan, Andrew Cuomo in New York, Robert Reich in Massachusetts and Bill Curry in Connecticut. Erskine Bowles and Gloria Tristani are running for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina and New Mexico. "It's really part of the influence of the presidency," says Paul Begala, one of the most important spinners of a presidential era now swiftly fading into oblivion. "They look back and say 'I was part of something larger than myself.' They want to see those ideas live on."

This should give those who can't get enough of old chestnuts, roasted or not, all the undigested Clinton they want. George W. is on to bigger and far more important concerns, and that's what he wants the party to concentrate on in the aftermath of September 11. Nearly everyone is eager to move on. We've been there, done that.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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