W., who has generally shown a deft political touch and an impressive
strategic grasp, has lately been committing the kinds of embarrassing
errors of judgment that do not bode well for his candidacy. He must do
some serious rethinking about the direction of his campaign — and do it
His recent ad against Al Gore sums up everything that has gone wrong.
W. had made his own “positive” and “inclusive” tone the centerpiece of
his candidacy, on the assumption that Gore, deprived of a target for his
hit-man style of campaigning, would be disarmed and effectively
But when Gore suddenly shot up in the polls after deep-kissing his
wife before the eyes of the world and promising a vast expansion of the
welfare state, W. found himself having to “go negative” to bring down
Gore’s numbers. So he came out with a TV advertisement mocking Gore in
personal terms over his Internet comment and the Buddhist temple
That W. himself was uneasy about the ad was suggested by his
inability to provide a coherent justification for it in an extensive
interview with The New York Times. First he told the Times that the ad
was needed as a counter-thrust against Gore’s “$30 million” of ads
against him. The problem with this explanation, however, was that W.’s
ad had said nothing about Gore’s ads.
W. then said that the purpose of the ad was to undermine Gore’s
credibility, in order that voters would look more skeptically at any
future statements coming from the Gore campaign. This explanation
sounded reasonable, yet a moment later W. shifted ground once again and
insisted that the ad was just “tongue-in-cheek,” undermining his own
claim that it had a serious purpose.
While we can perhaps write off W.’s verbal meandering as a symptom of
momentary confusion brought on by his opponent’s surge in the polls, the
ad itself is symptomatic of a more fundamental problem with the Bush
The fact that W., when he finally felt compelled by circumstances to
“turn negative,” did it in such a trivial and personal way suggests that
he isn’t willing or able to articulate any important differences
that he may have with his opponent.
It’s an attitude that is rife throughout his campaign and his party.
Negativity is bad, intone the gentlemen at the RNC, and we won’t do
that. Can’t oppose affirmative action, declares W.’s top adviser Karl
Rove, that would be demagogic. I’m a uniter, says W., not a
divider. Having precluded even the possibility of a principled stand
against the leftist party that it is running against, the Bush campaign,
once it had started to fall behind, had no choice but to attack Gore on
secondary or tertiary issues.
So W. criticized Gore for his grandiloquent boast about inventing the
Internet and his “hypocrisy” on campaign finance, not for his
illegal conduct and gross lies on campaign finance. Moreover, W. did
this in a sarcastic, unpleasant-sounding ad that violated his own pledge
to “change the tone of politics.”
W. thus ended up with the worst of both worlds: he failed to expose
Gore-Clinton’s more serious transgressions, and he made himself
look mean and hypocritical.
This is the ultimate result of W.’s decision to make opposition to
“partisanship” his political raison d’etre. By W.’s own
standards, it would be too “partisan” to point out that Gore is the No.
2 man in the most rule-breaking, law-bending, Constitution-defying,
character-assassinating, anti-American administration in the nation’s
history. The only legitimate substantive criticism he can make about
Gore is — guess what? — that he’s too “partisan.” But who could
possibly care about that reproach, other than the News Hour crowd and
the soccer moms who are all Democrats anyway?
As Michael Dukakis discovered when he ran against W.’s father in
1988, “let’s raise the tone and avoid partisanship” is a losing strategy
when you’re up against an aggressive opponent with a clearly defined
position. In the second presidential debate that year, Dukakis kept
complaining that Bush was being nasty and ideological for calling him a
liberal, and Bush kept coming back and saying you are a liberal.
Dukakis never recovered.
Bizarrely, W. seems to be emulating the loser Dukakis instead of his
Even W.’s main political objection to the Clinton-Gore administration
(“They have squandered their opportunities. They have not led. We
will.”) is more Dukakis than the Bush of 1988, since it emphasizes
non-ideological process over political substance. “They have not led”
implies that W. has no objection to anything Clinton and Gore have
actually done — he’s just dissatisfied with their failure to do
more of it.
W.’s rhetoric eerily reminds me of “Whip Me, I’m a Republican” Mitt
Romney, Ted Kennedy’s pathetic challenger in the 1994 election. At one
of their debates, Romney declared: “Senator Kennedy and I believe in
the same things. But I can be more effective at achieving them.” I
knew at that moment that Romney was a goner, and deserved to be.
If W. is not to share the fate of Mitt Romney, he had better
demonstrate (or at least, like his father in 1988, pretend to
have) serious disagreements with the other side that go beyond such
burning issues as “tone” and “hypocrisy.”
Lawrence Auster lives in New York City.