The Rorschach Candidate

What, exactly, does George W. Bush think about homosexuals? Sifting through his campaign detritus, curious voters will find neither a stock denunciation (à la Gary Bauer) nor a pro forma statement of support (à la Bill Bradley). Though he refuses to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, Bush can point to a number of openly gay staffers working for his various state campaign operations. And yet as far as the Christian Coalition is concerned, Bush is opposed to gay adoption, gay marriage, and hate-crime laws--he is "for equal rights" but "against special rights."

When other Republicans attacked ambassadorial nominee James Hormel last spring for his alleged promotion of a "gay agenda," Bush remarked, "If someone can do a job, and a job that he's qualified for, that person ought to be allowed to do his job."

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But a few months after that, during a private meeting with the Madison Group--a clique of religious conservative power brokers--Bush reportedly promised that he would not "knowingly" appoint open homosexuals to any top administration post.

By November, Bush had adopted one of the more emblematic Clintonisms: With regards to gays in the military, Bush told an Elks Club dinner in New Hampshire, he favored "don't ask, don't tell."

The same might be said of Bush's own ideological leanings. Bush currently occupies an improbably wide swath of the political spectrum; he is large, containing ideological multitudes within his sly grin and folksy manner. There is no gay-baiting by the Bush campaign, which is fine for most voters; nor are there any paeans to diversity, which is good enough for the Madison Group. Somewhere in between lies Bush's actual stance on the matter, and you, the voter, are invited to make your own assumptions.

That this strategy--running simultaneously as an Eisenhower moderate and a Reagan conservative--makes Bush appealing is no surprise. That he is getting away with it is astounding. Ever since Barry Goldwater brought radical conservatism to the GOP, Republican presidential hopefuls have been forced into a tricky electoral mambo, dancing right for prickly primary voters and left, after the nominating convention, for everyone else. Yet Bush, who has maintained a stolid center-right box step since March, has nevertheless acquired an aura of predestination. Conventional wisdom has it that Bush's poll numbers render him adamantine, immune to the primary rough-and-tumble. But the opposite is true--it is precisely the lack of primary rough-and-tumble that has propelled Bush's poll numbers. Thanks to a felicitous convergence of forces, Bush has managed to suck the politics out of politics.

The Incredible, Inevitable Candidate

Bush partisans would have you believe that his $63 million (as of December 20) represents nothing so much as a vast outpouring of public support. "The media's monomania about Bush's fund raising," wrote George Will in a recent column, "reflects an obdurate refusal to recognize that Bush has lots of money because he has lots of supporters, not vice versa." Will, whose penchant for Republican front-runners is legendary, may want to fire his research assistant: According to the latest Federal Election Commission filings, Bush has managed to raise more than twice as much as Al Gore with about 20,000 fewer donors. And it's no surprise that of Bush's top-10 fundraising zip codes, two are in Greenwich (his père's home turf), one is on New York's Upper East Side, and eight are in Texas. Like any mainstream Republican, Bush gets most of his money from the usual collection of establishment and business types, with added boosts from Texas oil and gas interests and from his father's old fundraising network.

The Brobdingnagian proportions of Bush's war chest, however, do reflect something unusual: This election year, the Republican establishment has coalesced around Bush with a speed, unity, and enthusiasm unmatched in recent memory. Why? Bush's campaign may be stinking rich, but behind the mammoth fundraising totals lurks a whiff of desperation. Establishment Republicans--centrist to moderately conservative on social issues, and far more concerned with taxes and regulatory policy than with moral values--have been virtually disenfranchised for seven years, watching helplessly as Newt and Co.'s partisan clown show whittled their party's public approval rating down to its lowest level in decades. By contrast, Bush has spent the past six years turning Texas into a big-business paradise. As a popular two-term governor, Bush has thwarted enforcement of federal and state pollution laws, pushed through tort reform, and nearly defeated a state law that now permits consumers to sue HMOs for malpractice. To the Republican business establishment, Bush is nothing less than a savior--an attractive, pedigreed, and proven candidate who can help wrest control of the GOP back from its ideologues and, not incidentally, recapture the White House.

W.'s father, of course, attempted something similar during his presidency--without much success. And Bob Dole, who entered the 1996 race with a relatively moderate Senate record, arrived at the Republican convention decrying activist judges and cultural decay. But today, after seven long, Clinton-filled years, the dynamics that have traditionally forced mainstream Republicans to defend their right flanks are changing. "At San Diego, a lot of Christian Coalition activists were willing to embarrass Dole over the abortion plank in the platform," recalls Peter Montgomery, a senior analyst with the liberal advocacy group People For the American Way. "I think they--particularly the leadership--are thinking about the possibility that they helped put Bill Clinton back in the White House." One sign was James Dobson's threat last year to leave the Republican Party, taking his six million radio listeners with him. Another was Paul Weyrich's bizarre call for a retreat to "parallel institutions"--wholly separate "schools, universities, media, entertainment, everything." But perhaps most revealing is that Bush could speak before the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" conference this year without once mentioning the word "abortion."

Simmering at least since Dole's 1996 defeat, the pragmatism-versus-principle debate among religious conservatives has exploded over Bush's money--"fuck-you money," as Jay Severin, the acerbic radio host and MSNBC commentator, describes it. "The money buys not just credibility, not just front-runner status, but inevitability," he says. "People have been brainwashed--and in some cases it took only a rinse--to believe in the inevitability of the Bush campaign." The unrinsed--ideological purists like Weyrich, Brent Bozell, the Traditional Values Coalition's Reverend Lou Sheldon, and longtime conservative activist Morton Blackwell--have publicly endorsed Steve Forbes, as have a smattering of disaffected former Coalition organizers. But those organizations and leaders most closely tied to the GOP leadership, particularly Pat Robertson and the Coalition, have all but endorsed Bush. With Ralph Reed, the Coalition's original pragmatist, acting as an informal conduit between Robertson and the Bush campaign [see Joshua Micah Marshall, Below the Beltway, page 9], they hope to avoid the sort of fratricidal bloodletting that hobbled Dole and Bush, Sr. "It represents a deepening of pragmatism," says Florida State University professor Justin Watson, author of the seminal Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition. "Many [religious conservatives] are tired of losing, and they want a winner. You do have some smart, pragmatic people at the grass roots. They are concerned that George W. Bush doesn't have a litmus test, but they are more concerned that Bill Bradley and Al Gore do have a litmus test--one they don't accept."

Rounding out the primary terrain is a third factor: the near-collapse of the conservative Republicans in Congress. Fearing a Democratic takeover, erstwhile Republican revolutionaries have toned down their rhetoric, have scheduled fewer symbolic votes on abortion and flag-burning, and (conveniently enough) have ignored their earlier term limit pledges. Meanwhile, moderate Republicans--presumed, like liberals during the Reagan years, to be an endangered species--are staging a comeback. "The 1998 elections were a clarion call," says former GOP Congressman Steve Gunderson, "a rejection of the far right and the far left. In past years, there was a tendency to avoid the center, to avoid the pragmatic part of the party until after the convention," he says. "Obviously the times have changed dramatically." Gunderson, needless to say, is a strong Bush supporter. So is Representative Amo Houghton, current chairman of the Republican Main Street Partnership, and so are all the House members of the Republican Leadership Council (RLC), another centrist group.

And so are some of the most conservative Republicans in the House. Charged with holding onto the House in 2000 (or at least avoiding a rout), Republican leaders in Congress--including Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, J.C. Watts, and Christopher Cox--have hitched themselves to the Bush wagon, hoping for a Reagan-style landslide to preserve their majority.

But the support of conservative Republicans in Congress does more than complement Bush's aura of inevitability. By eliminating a major potential source of criticism and debate, congressional Republicans deprive Bush's opponents of ideological traction and allow Bush to further avoid defining himself. One imagines that the old, carnivorous Tom DeLay would have feasted on "compassionate conservatism." But when Bush attacked congressional Republicans for trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor," the newly placid DeLay could only grit his teeth. Bush, he bristled to the press, "obviously doesn't understand how Congress works."

The Heisenberg Candidate

All of this obscures the often-asked, never-really-answered question about Bush: Is he a substantive moderate (as conservatives suspect), a closet conservative (as liberals suspect), or some strange amalgam of the two?

His record as governor of Texas is certainly conservative. In addition to implementing wide-ranging tort reform and lax environmental standards, Bush has vigorously promoted school vouchers, passed a massive and regressive tax cut, tried to privatize Texas's welfare system, and even attempted to block--in accordance with the wishes of the tobacco lobby--his own state's $2-billion share of a tobacco lawsuit settlement [see Robert Dreyfuss, "George W.'s Compassion," TAP, September-October 1999].

Bush's current campaign proposals are phrased obliquely, with conservative means wrapped in liberal ends. He "supports conservation of land, wetlands and habitat"--but emphasizes "by private landowners." He "supports offering prescription drug benefit [sic] to Medicare recipients through more options and greater choice of plans," a typically opaque free-marketism. He "believes environmental standards must be based on the best science, market-driven technologies can provide solutions, and government should encourage innovation and going beyond compliance," all of which commits Bush, in concrete policy terms, to exactly nothing. Bush says he is "pro-life" and wants to "set the goal that all children should be welcomed in life and protected by law"--a formulation that neatly dodges the question of whether or not he will seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. His education policy proposal emphasized "character education" thus: "The federal government now spends $5 million on promoting character education efforts. My administration will triple that funding [and] require federal and youth juvenile justice programs to incorporate an element of characterbuilding." Yes, but what constitutes "character education?" Who decides? We may find out, presumably after the election.

Bush's well-polished stump speech, finally, is practically apolitical. "Compassionate conservatism," with its collection of paired, semirelated nostrums, is nicely illustrative: "It is conservative to reform welfare by insisting upon work," he often tells audiences. "It's compassionate to take the side of churches and synagogues and charities that confront the suffering which remains." All this really tells us is that Bush supports welfare reforms that are now four years old, and is willing to let churches and private charities continue to do the antipoverty work they have been doing for aeons. Yet Republican moderates insist that Bush is a harbinger of nothing less profound than realignment. "Dick Armey and Tom DeLay are great guys," says Houghton. "But they're not exactly universal thinkers. Look, George Bush is basically a centrist. He's gotta deal with the American people, and most of the American people are in the center." Yet, as both Houghton and Gunderson concede, there is no real locus of moderate Republican thinking comparable to that of the deeply programmatic Reagan Revolution. There is no vanguard of thinkers, no seminal tract, no think tank--the RLC has no analogue for the Democratic Leadership Council's Progressive Policy Institute--no magazine or other publication, and no real intellectual framework.

What Bush's strategists have designed for him is not so much a moderate Republicanism as it is a politics stripped of ideological referents--the rhetorical and substantive cues, the promises and allegiances, that define politicians and, inevitably, pigeonhole them. As his dithering on homosexuality suggests, Bush favors a sort of political Heisenberg's principle: We know roughly where to look for his positions, but never exactly where he stands. Reading the positions on his Web site, one could easily come away with the impression that he is somewhat pro-gun control, tolerant of homosexuality, a campaign finance reformer, and moderately pro-environment. But there is little among those same positions that would seriously antagonize the National Rifle Association, the Heritage Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, or Citizens for a Sound Economy. What's remarkable is that his putative centrism has been achieved with so few commitments to substantively moderate policies. To the extent that Bush's positions are identifiable, they display a deeply "business first" sensibility and heavily emphasize privatization and free market solutions. And where social issues are concerned, Bush has had no Sister Souljah moment, no public repudiation of any figure or organization on the right. Nor will he--and that's the whole idea.

Bush makes few promises, burns no bridges, alienates no one. And when the moment does call for a bit of bridge burning, Bush--far ahead of his rivals, endorsed by nearly everyone who might otherwise threaten him--can simply ignore the question. When asked by NBC's Tim Russert whether he would meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, Bush demurred. "All that does," he said with unintended candor, "is create kind of a huge political nightmare for people."

The Default Candidate

But if the combination of establishment unity, right-wing fracture, and congressional timidity have made such Rorschach politics possible, the strange composition of the Republican primary field has made it sustainable. The much-feared religious conservative vote is split and then split again--between pragmatists and purists, and then between Bushite accommodationists and Buchananite secessionists, and between Forbesian purists and Bauerian purists. Former Family Research Council head Gary Bauer, who is the most eloquent, vocal, and consistent religious conservative of the bunch, lacks either the money or the name recognition to keep Bush honest. Forbes, who in 1996 was just another multimillionaire with a quirky tax scheme and delusions of grandeur, has enough money to pound Bush through Election Day. But Forbes's earlier resistance to "the movement"--he called Pat Robertson a "toothy flake" in 1996--leaves him ill-positioned to run as the true believer. And Buchanan, who has both national prominence and (assuming he wins the Reform Party nomination) as much as $12.6 million in campaign cash, has sufficient strength only to suck votes--and possibly victory--from the eventual Republican nominee without coming close to winning himself.

Finally, there is John McCain, whose conservative credentials are arguably the most impeccable of the leading candidates. As a senator, McCain has voted against child gun locks, raising the minimum wage, and gay employment rights, and in favor of overriding Clinton's partial-birth abortion ban veto, liability reform, and 1997's flag-desecration amendment. His ratings from conservative advocacy groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the American Conservative Union have historically been high. They fell sharply in 1998--largely as payback for his championing of campaign finance reform. Indeed, it is his vociferous support for reform that has made McCain an outsider in his own party; the GOP would fracture noisily should McCain win the nomination. Even worse for the religious right, McCain has taken the Bush approach on red-meat issues, downplaying his stances on abortion, gay rights, and the environment in order to court moderate independent voters. Unable to rally around a creditable alternative, religious conservatives have pulled all their punches, given away their leverage, and virtually ceded the primary to Bush.

The poll numbers show it. Since he entered the race last spring, Bush's lead has remained enormous. Matchups against Bill Bradley have put Bush as high as 60 percent (from a Time/CNN poll in June), and he fares only slightly worse against Gore. (The projected electoral vote percentages are even more lopsided.) But New Hampshire, where McCain is in a statistical tie with Bush, tells a slightly different story. For one thing, Bush is not invulnerable. Because New Hampshire is such a small state, the vast disparity in campaign cash between Bush and his opponents matters less; even an underdog like McCain can buy plenty of local TV time, shake a lot of hands, and vigorously press his opponents. And because New Hampshirites take their first-in-the-nation primary seriously, Bush's strategy--in essence, avoid mixing it up and gloss over the issues--is less effective there. What McCain's surge in New Hampshire reveals is that when Bush's ill-defined, apolitical politics is forced against the sharp edge of a forceful and articulate opponent, his lead shrivels.

But it is for precisely the same reasons that Bush may be our next president--and almost certainly the Republican nominee. The same factors that work in McCain's favor in New Hampshire--a small stage, cheap media--work against him everywhere else, where a well-known name beats a principled stand almost every time. Most Americans, unlike most New Hampshirites, aren't paying attention. On a national stage, lacking the resources to blanket the airwaves with campaign ads, McCain can't force Bush to define himself. And the strange crossover vote between Bradley and McCain, far from a sign of McCain's strength, signals his eventual defeat: Ideology, like party affiliation, is less and less relevant to American politics. In an age of prosperity, voters like a candidate who draws no bright lines--and they have too little stake in politics to care about Bush's inconsistencies or wonder about his promises. ¤