Bush’s Tone-Deaf Campaign Still Preferable to McCain’s

Once John McCain is gone, conservatives can go back to being uncomfortable with George W. Bush. Was there ever a dumber campaign than Mr. Bush’s New York effort to paint Mr. McCain as pro-breast-cancer? You would have to go all the way back to 1998, when Alfonse D’Amato tried to save his Senate seat by arguing that he was against breast cancer. When will we get sick of political diseases? What makes breast cancer worse than ovarian cancer, or prostate cancer, or my sometime ailment, testicular cancer? Mr. Bush and the New York G.O.P. would reject such nonsense if they had any balls; even I have more than they do.

Before leaving the breast cancer war, we should note the unflattering light it shone, if only theoretically, on Mr. McCain’s bumptious rumbling about special interests. Special interests always benefit someone. Mr. McCain blurs this truth by focusing his attacks on tobacco companies, which the culture has agreed to demonize (though not beer distributors, like Cindy McCain’s father). But, somewhere along the line, Mr. McCain, or any other foe of pork, will dispatch programs that are someone’s prize piglet. Such slaughters are a necessary consequence of shrinking government, but Mr. McCain cheapens the argument by presenting the fight against special interests as a war on obvious evil.

As Super Tuesday approached, New Yorkers got a look at Mr. McCain’s weird personality in the stories of Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times . I don’t know which was worse, Mr. McCain’s narcissism or his persuasiveness-the fact that he traded one model, after a car crash left her five inches shorter and fat, for another model, or the fact that the first wife, and the children of the first marriage, all still love him so. He persuades his admirers in the press the same way he persuaded his first family: “Yeah [big grin], Charles Keating was the worst mistake of my life; if I’d known, when I was a war prisoner, that he was in my future, I would have felt even worse [big grin].” It’s good we won’t be exploring this personality much further; two snake charmers in a row would be too much.

Outside New York, the campaign focused on other matters. Mr. Bush called for giving back some of the budget surplus in the form of tax cuts, and he did it with intellectual clarity: Tax cuts aren’t givebacks, since it’s our money in the first place. He also called for reform of our haggard public education system. Throughout the campaign his best phrase has been: “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations”-what a system without accountability foists on kids and parents, most punishingly on those who are poor. These were not issues for New Yorkers but for adults-what Mr. McCain would call “grown-ups.”

Too bad Mr. McCain didn’t raise any. The best he could do was to compare the religious right to Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton. Yes, the Senator threw in the names of a few good religious right-wingers (Charles Colson resented being so used). But when you compare Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the two best-known spokesmen for conservative evangelicals of the last 20 years, to Mr. Farrakhan and Mr. Sharpton, conservative evangelicals get the message. Say what you will about Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson-they never believed their enemies were the products of demonic breeding experiments on the island of Patmos, as Mr. Farrakhan does, and they never incited to commercial ethnic cleansing, as Mr. Sharpton did outside Freddy’s Fashion Mart. Giddy commentators called Mr. McCain’s explosion a “Sister Souljah moment.” Sister Souljah, the black performer Bill Clinton famously dissed in 1992, had rapped about killing whites. Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson never did that, either.

Mr. McCain was doing Mr. Gore’s work for him. So were his conservative supporters. Gary Bauer’s motives in backing Mr. McCain are clear enough. If Mr. McCain wins, Mr. Bauer could get a second low-level White House appointment. That would give him the credentials to run for emperor of the world next time; who knows, he might get 10 percent in the Iowa caucuses. What explains Bill Kristol and David Brooks? A few years ago, Martin Amis had a science-fiction short story in The New Yorker that described a plan by ancient Martians to detonate the center of the universe, thus rearranging all space-time-“conceivably,” as he put it, “to Mars’ advantage.” That seems to be what Mr. Kristol and Mr. Brooks want to do to the political universe-not just to stop Mr. Bush and replace him with a better candidate, but to replace the G.O.P. and the conservative movement. With what? The answer is a mystery, as elusive as the concept of “national greatness conservatism,” which the two (both friends of mine) have been pushing for some years. They do like Theodore Roosevelt. Isn’t this part of the problem? T.R. was great political horseflesh, and he built a fine canal. Nice parks, too. But isn’t it a difficulty, for his reputation and for his admirers, that it is impossible to write what he believed on a single sheet of paper-or many (Herbert Croly tried)? When Michael Lind-another T.R. fan-wrote off the conservative movement, he was consistent enough to leave it first.

Meanwhile, the Democratic juggernaut bears down on the nation and the city. For the last eight years, it was Clinton-Gore. Now it will be Gore-Clinton. Mr. Sharpton kept the streets quiet enough after the Diallo verdict. No doubt he was ordered by Mr. Gore and Hillary Clinton to do so. Tempestuous protests might have affected his primary, and her election, in unpredictable ways. Mr. Sharpton will demand a reward for his good behavior, however. (Those who normally behave badly always do.) He will become a one-man Federal civilian review board for New York City, and perhaps for black affairs generally. He has that position within the state Democratic Party already. The country’s only hope is that Mr. Gore’s weirdness and extremism will give the G.O.P. a boost. The city’s only hope, post-Giuliani, is nothing.