There is something about George W. Bush that simultaneously confounds
pundits and appeals to swing voters. He doesn't fit the profile of the
ordinary presidential candidate, which leaves pundits perplexed and the
Think about it. How many columns have you seen either laboring to
defend Bush's conservatism or attacking his professed compassion as
fraudulent? Yet, the "mushy middle" doesn't seem to be too hung up on
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There are basically two types of people who throw their hats into the
political ring: those who crave the power that comes with elective
office, such as Bill Clinton, and those who are driven by political
ideology, such as Ronald Reagan. As to the ideological types, there's
nothing very new about their beliefs -- politics is an old game.
Sure, every once in a while ideas come in new packaging, such as the
supply-side movement of the Reagan-Kemp '80s, but tax cuts were nothing
new. Arthur Laffer just came up with a user-friendly graph to explain
the growth phenomenon. In the '90s, the so-called Third Way movements
are touted as containing new ideas, but they are really little more than
an admixture of conservative and liberal policies, usually heavily
weighted toward the liberal side. Most Third Way movements, in fact, are
the experiments of officious baby boomers-turned-politicians treating
politics as their adult chemistry sets.
Unable to dissect "compassionate conservatism" and having no words in
their political vocabulary to explain it, some befuddled analysts are
beginning to describe Bush's unique approach to politics as Third Way as
well. It is not.
I believe the key to understanding Bush is to realize that he doesn't
fall neatly into either of the two types of candidates I've described.
He doesn't lust for power, and he isn't particularly driven by ideology.
Though he's been around politics all his life, his relationship with it
has been more platonic than a love affair. So what makes him tick?
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Well, just because Bush is not an ideologue doesn't mean he is
without political beliefs grounded in ideology. For the most part, he is
conservative, though not a purist. In his acceptance speech he earned
the support of the base by affirming that he is for tax cuts, SDI,
strengthening the military, protection of the unborn, partial
privatization of Social Security, educational choice and abolishing the
estate tax. He reinforced his belief in family and family values by his
touching tribute to his parents. He has said his favorite Supreme Court
judges are those stalwart models of conservatism and judicial restraint,
Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
On the other hand, Bush talked about making prescription drugs a new
entitlement. He has elsewhere declared that literacy is the new
constitutional right. These are hardly conservative notions. So is Bush
Many Democrats and media types would have us believe so. They hear
Bush's expressions of compassion as fool's gold -- window dressing for
the same old GOP politics of corporate greed. Sooner or later, they seem
sure, he's going to trip up and expose himself for the avaricious
preppy-legacy he is.
They're wrong. There's nothing odd about Bush reaching out to
minorities. It's a function of his genuine concern for their welfare and
his refusal to accept the conventional wisdom that they are
unapproachable by Republicans. There's also nothing odd about Bush
offering new programs (such as in education) that don't neatly fit into
the conservative classification. It's not because he's dabbling in a
third way of his own. Third Way politicians are policy wonks who eat,
sleep and breathe politics. Not Bush. He's not playing with an adult
chemistry set with a baby boomer-arrogance. He's just fairly new to the
game of politics and has brought his energy, optimism and enthusiasm
What ought to have Gore shaking in his boots is that the apolitical
approach that Bush brings to politics involves a disarming quality that
is going to make him powerfully hard to beat in November. Most swing
voters will relate to Bush because they are not particularly driven by
ideology, either. They are looking for a person who wants to make a
difference and is refreshingly uncynical enough to believe he can. The
wonkish Al Gore is going to have a much more difficult time speaking