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
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
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
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
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.