Senator Barack Obama’s supporters tout him as the “anti-Bush,” who represents the opposite of everything that the president stands for. This portrayal is odd, since Senator Obama is cribbing much of his strategy from the 2000 Bush campaign.
The heart of his appeal is the notion that Americans are hungry for “a different kind of politics.” Seven years ago, Bush sensed the same hunger and offered the same message. Karl Rove called Bush “a strong leader who’s a different kind of Republican, who will move America in the direction that they’d like to see.”
Obama says his “difference” is about attitude. He regrets that politics has become “so bitter and partisan,” stressing that we must “come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.” During a debate with Al Gore, Bush said the same thing: “I know it will require a different kind of leader to go to Washington to say to both Republicans and Democrats, let’s come together.”
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama recalls his time as an Illinois legislator to depict himself as a bipartisan problem-solver. “Occasionally I would partner up with even my most conservative colleagues to work on a piece of legislation, and over a poker game or a beer we might conclude that we had more in common than we publicly cared to admit.”
In his 2000 campaign book, A Charge to Keep, Bush said that bipartisanship was the theme of his Texas governorship. In a chapter titled “Working Together,” he wrote of Democratic legislators: “I wanted to hear what was important to each member, what he or she hoped to accomplish during the session. I was convinced that through patience and respect and listening to each other, we could find common ground.”
Obama has only served two years in the Senate. But he is trying to turn his short tenure into an asset by suggesting that he has no ties to past mistakes. He is fresh – or “clean,” as Senator Biden would put it. Similarly, Bush said in his acceptance speech: “[My] background may lack the polish of Washington. Then again, I don’t have a lot of things that come with Washington. I don’t have enemies to fight. I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years.”
Obama declares independence by making some broad criticisms of his party. “In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills,” he writes in his book, “we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems.” In a 1999 speech, Bush offered a parallel critique of the GOP. “Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else — speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, of CBO this and GNP that. Of course we want growth and vigor in our economy. But there are human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence.”
The “different kind of politics” approach worked for Bush in 2000, and it could work for Obama next year. But what then?
There are signs that an Obama presidency would disappoint those who hunger for centrism and civility. While he has worked with Republicans on some issues, his voting record is that of a hardcore liberal. On roll calls where the parties have disagreed, he has sided with fellow Democrats 97 percent of the time.
In his book, he attacks Ronald Reagan, the modern leader whom Republicans most revere. Obama sneers at “his John Wayne, Father Knows Best pose, his policy by anecdote, and his gratuitous assaults on the poor.” Just imagine a Republican writing so harshly about John F. Kennedy. Would anyone see that person as a political healer?
Obama may yet surprise us. But so far, his “different kind of politics” is a catalog of sameness.