George W. Bush really bolstered his own base tonight. I think that while all the doubts that have been mounting about his candidacy in recent weeks may not have been eliminated, he has given his supporters enough reason to go to the polls. McCain, on the other hand, probably did not excite sufficient numbers of Democrats to make up for the support he’s lost among Republicans. So, in that sense I think Bush comes out ahead.
Bush’s base has been quaking in its boots fearing that he’s just not up to the task. McCain has really begun to cow a lot of Republicans into thinking he’s the one who’s inevitable. Hurricane McCain has been blowing very hard. But Bush went toe-to-toe, adult-to-adult with McCain on every single point, which was very important because the “man v. boy” issue had been growing. When McCain started defending his tax plan as one that “grown-ups” support, I think that was a canned, prepared line that fell flat. Bush showed a lot of intensity tonight; you could almost believe that he really believed in his issues.
On specifics, McCain’s return to his “no tax cuts for the rich” line is a big mistake. To me it’s inconceivable that a serious Republican presidential candidate would repeat that mantra, except if he’s pandering to moderate and liberal independents and Democrats. It will undercut his credibility inside the Republican party, if he ever wins. His advocacy of a government program for free drug prescriptions for seniors is another Clintonesque policy that might appeal to Democrats, but will do him damage down the road. McCain will regret not creating a context for free-market health-care reform.
The other substantive mistake McCain made was to hint strongly that if the genocidal killing in Rwanda were to begin again, he would have the United States intervene. That can only reinforce the view that McCain is an indiscriminate military interventionist. It didn’t help that he defended this idea on explicitly Wilsonian grounds. Bush had a much more measured response on the foreign-policy question. He indicated that the U.S. would act to protect it’s national security interests, but be careful in choosing where to act. It was telling that he cited as an example of when intervention would be warranted preserving access to the Panama Canal, which is much more closer to home than Rwanda, and presumably strikes people as much more hard-headed.
McCain repeated his no Internet tax position, during the course of which he made the point that the governors are too greedy in wanting to grab Internet-commerce tax revenue. This is all to the good. But why doesn’t McCain apply that thinking to Congress, which is so greedy that it would be likely to spend the surplus? While McCain continues to defend a sound, growth-oriented position on the Internet, Bush continues to apply that message more broadly. He said his tax cuts will promote growth and expand the economic pie — just as a supply-sider should.
This is an important theme for Bush. So is the notion he expressed tonight that if he’s elected president, he’ll end the gridlock in Washington. It’s a nice contrast with McCain, who seems to be running against his colleagues. Bush can say that he dealt with Democrats and Republicans in the Texas legislature, and he’s ready to do the same with Congress. Bush should continue this theme. The problem is that Bush continues to get knocked off his message. Fundamentally, his message is one of lower taxes, limited government, personal responsibility, and faith — themes that appeal all the way from the right to the center. But today’s campaign-finance proposal could keep him off that message in the 11th hour in South Carolina.
One other encouraging point about Bush: His solid performance tonight on policy details shows that he’s a learner, that he is absorbing the knowledge and expertise of the people around him. McCain, on the other hand, still seems to be flying solo. And I don’t think flying solo is the ideal way to be president in the 21st century. McCain also had a lot of attitude tonight, and seemed almost contemptuous and arrogant at times. It was clear again how little he likes people to criticize him, a quality that will not stand him in good stead against Al Gore. The vice president is not going to let huffiness stop him from throwing his punches.
So, bottom line: Bush helped himself, but South Carolina is just too close to call.