Bush Cracks Down on G.O.P. Zealots

As the primary season approaches, hard-line conservatives

are discovering who is really in charge of the Republican Party, and it isn’t

them. With an overwhelming mandate from business leaders-handed over in the

form of campaign contributions-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has taken up the

electorally imperative task of disciplining the party’s rambunctious

right-wingers.

The campaign agenda of the Presidential front-runner is

quite literally “back to business,” in the sense that the priorities of the Fortune 500 are taking precedence over

the aspirations of the conservative cultural warriors. Those priorities are the

same as ever: regressive tax cuts and the removal of environmental, consumer

and labor regulations. So the Governor and his “compassionate conservatism” are

being smartly packaged, market tested and rolled out like any other new

product. 

If compassionate

conservatism means anything at all, it means tough love for the

ultra-conservatives who have dominated the Republican Party in recent years.

This is the kind of treatment these moralists prescribe for other

people-welfare mothers, errant juveniles, pot smokers and homosexuals-but they squeal

loudly now that they’re on the receiving

end of a public caning (although some, like House majority whip Tom DeLay

of Texas, are already pretending to enjoy the

experience).

Clearly, Mr. Bush is a far more skillful politician than his father. The younger Mr. Bush has absorbed all the

lessons of the former President’s defeat.

Did President Bush suffer from an overemphasis on foreign

affairs? His son can barely locate any other country on a map, as he doesn’t

mind admitting. Did President Bush seem out of touch with middle-class worries,

and with women’s concerns in particular? His son cares about education and

kids. Was President Bush disgraced as a racial opportunist who profited from

the demagogic and divisive Willie Horton ad? His son never lets his picture be

taken without a black or Hispanic child in his arms.

The differentiation of Dubya from Dad began in his second

gubernatorial campaign, with a massive wave of television advertising that, not

coincidentally, was created by Mark McKinnon, a top Democratic consultant in

Austin. But now the same themes have been developed into a more sophisticated

strategy that draws from the two most successful politicians of this era,

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

From Mr. Reagan, the Bush advisers have borrowed the

friendly optimism, the down-home cowboy boots, and the lavishly produced,

musically manipulative “Morning in America” style of advertising, which they’ve

rebranded as “Fresh Start.” (If that sounds like a name for a breakfast cereal or, more appropriately, a deodorant, that

may be no accident.)

From Mr. Clinton, they

have adopted the supple tactics of repositioning their party toward the center

and rephrasing the issues associated with their opponents.

Naturally, this Reaganism Lite approach offends some

conservative intellectuals, who also take umbrage at the slightest echo of

Clintonism. Their worst fears were aroused recently in Manhattan, when Mr. Bush

castigated the apocalyptic anti-liberalism of Robert Bork’s best seller Slouching Towards Gomorrah . After an

initial roar of outrage, a Bush speechwriter quickly apologized. The clear

implication was that the candidate himself didn’t really know or care that he

was mocking the book’s title when he used the same phrase in a speech to the

Manhattan Institute.

And why should he? Mr.

Bush isn’t pretending to be a conservative intellectual, or an intellectual of

any other kind. According to First Son ,

the new biography of Governor Bush by reporter Bill Minutaglio, he has disliked

people who think too much ever since he attended Yale University in the 1960’s.

As the president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, a notoriously

drunken jock fraternity, Mr. Bush regarded professors and fellow students who

were then preoccupied with war and racial inequality as excessively “heavy” and

“self-righteous.” Turn the politics around, and it is easy to see how he might

regard the ideologically ponderous Bork crowd with equal scorn.

Mr. Bush did make an effort to court the right-wing

ideologues and fundamentalist zealots a decade ago, seeking to calm their

lingering suspicions about his dad. But that was long before the culture war

culminated in the impeachment of President Clinton, which was a crushing defeat

for the religious right.

Now their political

needs are subordinated to Mr. Bush’s-and if they’re unhappy with him, they can

try their luck with other Republican challengers, like Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer

or Alan Keyes.

With a campaign bankroll

expected to total more than $100 million and no viable Republican opponent,

there seem to be few obstacles in the Texas Governor’s path to the White House. Bush Cracks Down on G.O.P. Zealots