Last year, my wife and I were at a dinner party at which all the guests were asked to handicap the coming presidential election. It soon became apparent we were the only Democrats present; the other guests were not merely Republicans, but wealthy Republican donors (had we stumbled into the wrong dining room?). And the universal opinion among these people- it had not yet become the conventional wisdom- was that George W. Bush would be the next Republican nominee. They all seemed to be salivating at the prospect. The sight of salivating Republicans is distinctly unwelcome at a dinner party, enough to put one off one's feed.
Nevertheless, I pressed some of these other guests to explain what made them so enthusiastic. Curiously, not only couldn't they answer, but they barely bothered to try. They didn't know where he stood on any important issues. Most had never heard him speak, wouldn't have recognized his voice on the other end of a telephone line soliciting contributions. As far as I could tell, they were for him primarily because they were for him. They supported him because supporting him had become fashionable among those Republicans who give pots of money to the party and talk to one another.
In the 14 months since, that dinner-table wisdom has gone national. The polls confirm it, as, emphatically, does the "money primary," the ability to raise massive campaign contributions. The Bush campaign is positively awash in money. No doubt all those other dinner party guests did their part to put it there.
So ubiquitous has this conventional wisdom now become, I find myself a little hesitant to report that my gut instinct tells me exactly what it told me at the dinner party last year: George W. Bush will not be the Republican presidential nominee in the year 2000.
This particular gut instinct doesn't derive from his positions on issues. I don't know his positions on issues, except that he's for school choice and something called "compassionate conservatism." Neither does anybody else, including, I suspect, Bush himself. He'll have a set of position papers ready in due course, prepared by a panel of blue-ribbon advisers, and they'll be perfectly plausible, reasonably moderate, and a bit vague. And they will be irrelevant to his ultimate success or failure. Their entire raison d''tre is merely to demonstrate that he has positions, to establish a certain minimal legitimacy in the more elevated policy circles of the Republican establishment. And their formulation will be guided not by conviction but by an overriding desire not to alienate any potential supporters. When you're the most popular Rorschach inkblot in the deck, the last thing in the world you want to do is assume definitive shape.
Vagueness has taken him pretty far. Once he becomes specific, he'll inevitably start losing support. Therefore, when specificity becomes inevitable, it will remain minimal. But that process, which is common to front-runners of both parties in every election cycle, isn't the reason he's not going to be the nominee.
Bush is not going to be the nominee because the election is going to be decided by people's reaction to the last eight years. And we're in a peculiar situation with regard to those years. It is, in some ways, the reverse of 1960, when outgoing President Eisenhower was personally beloved and could probably have won a third term had the Constitution permitted him to seek it. But at the same time, most polls indicated voters were disillusioned with his administration's policies, with the pervasive air of languor and passivity that, rightly or wrongly, was perceived to have marked the period of his governance.
The outcome: we elected the anti-Eisenhower. Not so much in terms of programs- in truth, and contrary to revisionist legend, a centrist Republican was succeeded by a centrist Democrat- but in terms of personal aura. An elderly man (the oldest sitting president in our history up to that time), remote, dignified, sexless, grandfatherly, not terribly articulate, overseeing a government of staid establishment bureaucrats, was replaced by the youngest and most dynamic president since Theodore Roosevelt.
Today Bill Clinton's situation is 180 degrees from Eisenhower's. As the nation's steward, he's generally judged to have been a success. The economy is healthy, perhaps as healthy as it's ever been, the country is at peace, crime is down, and there's a general air of contentment and civility in the air. Most polls indicate that Clinton's performance in office still enjoys enthusiastic approval, an astonishing fact when you consider that his presidency is in its seventh year, that less than a year ago he was actually impeached, and that this past spring he had to pay a stiff fine after being found in contempt of court.
But that's the point: for all the respect his presidency still garners, as a human being, he's perceived to be not merely deficient, but an actual embarrassment. With all the approval lavished on his handling of the job, I suspect most people are desperately eager to see him climb onto that helicopter for the last time and get the hell out of town. And I think, consciously or not, they want their next president to be the anti-Clinton.
Which brings us back to George W. Bush. He's the same age as Bill Clinton, an attractive youngish man with a southern accent and a southern charm many of us city unctuous, a slightly raffish past (he refuses to tell us how raffish), a glib unwillingness to speak candidly, and a tendency to explain away his personal failings with a sanctimonious invocation of his Christian faith. Or, to put it another way, he isn't the anti-Clinton; he is Clinton. The most significant difference between them- 40 or 50 IQ points- does not redound to Bush's advantage.
Now factor in the following additional considerations: 1) Two of the meanest men in American politics- one with a personal fortune large enough to carry him through to the end game, the other an experienced television commentator with a well-honed knife of a tongue- are going to be attacking Bush relentlessly over the course of the entire primary season. And make no mistake, regardless of whatever nonaggression pacts they sign, they will be merciless. These aren't nice guys. 2) After a while, the press usually starts disliking, and then piling on, the front-runner, if only because it's boring to write the same story over and over. Reporters following Bush around will have reached that point well before the first vote is cast next year. The stories they file will seek to justify their biliousness. 3) Bush is neither especially bright nor very well-informed and therefore is liable to blunder badly in the glare of all the attention to which he'll be subjected. It doesn't take much: consider George Romney's brief candidacy in '68 or Edmund Muskie's in '72. While neither man had been invested with Bush-like inevitability at the time of their stumbles, both were considered to be strong- possibly the strongest- candidates in their respective fields.
So who is positioned to pick up the pieces? If we're looking for the anti-Clinton, one obvious answer is Elizabeth Dole, since, aside from everything else, she's a girl. But being the anti-Clinton may not be enough all by itself; if it were, we'd all be out trying to draft Rosa Parks, say, or John Cardinal O'Connor. And Elizabeth Dole's candidacy has one crippling drawback: her personality.
If I were a gambler, I'd put my money on John McCain: grown-up, war hero, reformer, party rebel, mensch. The anti-Clinton, you might say. As a Democrat, I have to view him as a menace, but as a citizen, I consider him the best his party can do and incomparably better than it deserves.
Not that I'd vote for him, mind.
One brief postscript: at the dinner party where everybody predicted Bush's nomination, the guests also made predictions about the 1998 elections, then only a month or two away, and all of them in accord with then-prevailing conventional wisdom. And they got every one of them wrong.