George Bush’s to Lose

Douglas Koopman

February 1, 2000

Despite the news from Michigan and Arizona, the Republican presidential race is still all about Texas governor George B. Bush. The GOP nomination remains his to lose. Unfortunately for Bush, Arizona Senator John McCain is making a pretty good case why that should happen.

Last year George W. Bush had all the money and all the establishment support. It’s not hard to see why. Bush had beaten a tough Democratic incumbent in a Democratic-leaning state, and won reelection four years later with universal Republican support and backing from some high-profile Democrats. Texas’s performance on key educational and economic indicators have improved since he took office, despite (or maybe because) of growing free trade with neighboring Mexico. And the bilingual governor exudes charm one-on-one and in small groups.

Bush was the obvious front-runner long before the money flowed his way, and it and the establishment endorsements reinforced the impression. There were no problems in view, except for a few rumors about “young and foolish” behavior undertaken, unlike Bill Clinton, when Bush actually was young and foolish.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation: a unpredictable campaign. The exhausting money chase and early primaries narrowed the field quickly to one major adversary, but one who Bush did not expect. Instead of dealing with pesky Steve Forbes (the Bush tax plan is tailor-made to respond to Forbes), Bush found himself facing steely John McCain, the “anti-Clinton.”

Why is McCain so tough? Two reasons. The most important reason is that Bush harbors the scent, albeit very faint, of Bill Clinton: a questionable experience with military service, uncertainties about personal moral conduct, and an apparently successful but largely unexplored record as a southern governor. No rational person believes that Bush’s flaws anywhere approach the magnitude of Clinton’s. On the other hand, what about campaigns is rational? It’s not out of the question that, should Bush become the nominee with these questions unanswered, the liberal media will morph Bush into a the moral equivalent of Bill Clinton, leaving the higher moral ground to faithful and true Al Gore.

Second, John McCain is a great campaigner for this campaign year. Like the once-divorced person looking for a second spouse, voters want precisely the opposite of what they just experienced. Instead of a draft dodger, they want a war hero (or at least someone who served bravely). Instead of a master spinmeister, they want someone who seems to always speak his mind (like Jimmy Carter, John McCain promises never to lie to the American people). Instead of detailed policy proposals that divert attention from character flaws, they are satisfied with the language of sacrifice and service that covers policy inadequacies.

Each of the two GOP candidates now leads approximately one-half of the coalition needed for party victory in November. Bush firmly holds the Republican regulars in his hand; he wins about two-thirds of their votes in every primary. Too bad for him, that record mirrors what father Bush did in 1992 and what Bob Dole accomplished in 1996, losers both. John McCain attracts the other groups that the party needs to be successful—moderate Republicans, independents who regularly vote Republican but don’t wear the party label, true independents, and a few Democrats willing to consider supporting an unconventional Republican in 2000. While it’s not the Reagan coalition, the McCain coalition is formidable in its own way. Republicans are usually nominated by the faction Bush controls, but they cannot win in November without the groups drawn to McCain.

These two weeks between the Michigan and Arizona primaries and “super Tuesday” March 7 are a critical time in the lives of both candidates’ campaigns.

Bush has to finally put substance behind his claim that he is more likely to beat Democrat Al Gore in the fall. His campaign speeches indicate that he at least knows the themes he has to sound. He has to be the compassionate conservative, but so far there has been almost no content to that appealing phrase. He has to be the reformer with results, but so far the vast sums of money spent on advertising have nary a mention of such results. And he has to be the true antidote to Clinton-Gore on the issue of personal character. But so far Bush has squandered his inheritance in a stale and negative campaign that, in attacking John McCain, reinforces the suspicion that he has little positive to offer and a lot of negatives to hide. If those suspicions are true, even if Bush wins the nomination he will be torn to shreds by the Democrats in the fall.

McCain’s objective is equally clear. He has to convince Republican regulars that, despite their overblown misgivings over his policies and their quite legitimate concerns over his effectiveness, the real enemy is the Democratic party and its almost certain nominee Albert Gore. Ironically, George Bush’s empty and negative campaign strategy may be McCain’s strongest source of evidence to prove his point.

Republican primary voters want nothing more than to win back the White House after what they see as eight years of Democratic disgrace and disaster. Healthy political parties know they first have to win, and the GOP nomination will go to who best makes the case that he is more likely to do so. Bush might still be able to make that case, and he needs no help from McCain in pulling it off. McCain, on the other hand, is almost totally dependent upon Bush’s success or failure. It’s all about George W. Bush, but if he continues his current content-free campaign, don’t be surprised if it’s President McCain.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.