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Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2000 /30 Shevat, 5760

George Will

George Will
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Conservatives in a Changing Market -- FOR SEVERAL YEARS George W. Bush assembled a campaign apparatus capable of backing his candidacy with even more marketing power, relative to competitors, than Ford Motor Co. put behind the Edsel. Now he has 16 days, until South Carolina votes, to prove that he is not, like that car, a product designed in disregard of changing market forces.

Tuesday night he began his concession speech gracefully but then lapsed into a reprise of the stump speech that had helped propel him to defeat. This deepened suspicions that he is overprogrammed because his managers worry that his education, political and otherwise, ended before he was quite full to the brim.

John McCain showed a sharply contrasting nimbleness when he declared New Hampshire's result "the beginning of the end for the truth-twisting politics of Bill Clinton and Al Gore." That is precisely the right message for South Carolina, probably the state most contemptuous of Clinton.

For weeks some Bush advisers preemptively rationalized a New Hampshire defeat as a kind of ratification by inhospitable Yankees. That is, defeat would confirm their success in presenting Bush as a religiously devout, tax-cutting southern conservative. And Tuesday night the explanation of defeat was that McCain had succeeded in adversely defining Bush's tax cut, but Bush will do better in South Carolina. Yet even if Bush had received all the votes that went to Steve Forbes, the candidate who most stresses tax cutting, McCain would still have won easily.

Conservatism is about responding prudently to scarcities, of resources and virtue. Today conservatives think the crucial scarcity is not disposable income but the principles of political leaders. If Bush is going to win the 16-day fight for the right to define conservatism, he must distinguish his principles from McCain's.

It is passing strange to construe McCain's insurgency as an eruption of true conservatism against the liberal Republican establishment--another round in the recurring rumble that began in 1912, when the party split between conservatives and progressives. In 1912 McCain's hero, Teddy Roosevelt, ran a third-party campaign, guaranteeing the defeat of the conservative incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft.

Yes, until 1964--thank you, Arizona, for Barry Goldwater--the Republican establishment was the conservatives' problem. But since 1964 conservatives have been the Republican establishment.
Yes, McCain, like Reagan, attracts Democrats. But Reagan Democrats were mostly working-class conservatives. McCain Democrats waver between him and Bill Bradley.

McCain's great goal is an unprecedented and probably (depending on which president nominates the next Supreme Court justices) unconstitutional regulation of political speech by individuals, candidates and independent groups. McCain wishes that much criticism of the political class were illegal: "If I could think of a way constitutionally, I would ban negative ads."

Bush's flaccid objection to McCain's campaign reforms--merely that they would hurt Republicans--is probably wrong and certainly is disgracefully indifferent to a fundamental constitutional value. That indifference suggests obtuseness or intellectual laziness, or both, and gives those conservatives who care most about constitutional questions no substantial reason to prefer Bush to McCain.

McCain says he approves of all the current Supreme Court justices who were nominated by Republican presidents. They include David Souter, who probably would be no obstacle to McCain's plans for rationing political speech by restricting contributions to candidates and issue advocacy by private groups. Among those who sold President Bush on nominating Souter, a New Hampshire native, was then-Sen. Warren Rudman, McCain's foremost New Hampshire supporter.

Rudman, who McCain suggests might be his attorney general, says that when he was a senator in 1991 he would have voted against the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas if his had been the deciding vote in the bitter confirmation struggle. ("Once it was clear that he would be confirmed, I made a political decision.") Clearly there are ample things for Bush and McCain to fight about in this game of capture the flag of conservatism.

McCain, the happiest political warrior since Hubert Humphrey, has demonstrated a military acumen for maximizing the power of limited resources by concentrating them. His infectious campaign merriment, the reverse of Bush's risk-averse style, reveals a spiritedness that would not allow presidential power to atrophy through disuse.

Bush has shown an aptitude pertinent to the presidency by preparing a continental campaign. He is a baseball person, acclimated to the rhythm of a long season, in which even the eventual champion does a lot of losing. Soon--perhaps in 16 days--we will know whether he is more like the current Yankees, immune to long slumps, or the 1951 Dodgers, remembered for losing a large lead and the decisive game.

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