Politics & Policy

On the Trail: Campaign at Rest

Governor Bush comes home.

EDITOR’S NOTE: NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru took the baton from Rich Lowry, who was on the Bush trail from Nov. 1-4.

Governor Bush held the penultimate rally of his camp at Bentonville, Arkansas. To underscore the point of his appearance there, at both the beginning and the end of the rally, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” was played and then interrupted by “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Bo Derek and Wayne Newton were on hand, the latter to fulminate against the renting of the Lincoln bedroom, and the former to deliver one of the nicest lines of the evening: “If I have convinced people in Hollywood [to support Bush], and I have, then you have no excuse.”

Bush gave his standard stump speech, although he unveiled a new word: “misunderestimated,” which is apparently what the Democrats did vis-à-vis his campaign.

Back on the plane, Bush let us reporters know that he was askin’ for our vote. He said he’s “enjoyed, gettin’ to know most of you,” which he then amended, not wholly convincingly, to “all of you.” He said he had sometimes disagreed with what we wrote or said, but respected us as people. Then he came back to shake our hands. By reporters demand, several campaign staffers came back too, with high-fives and cheers all around. (I fear I’ll never understand the fine points of the etiquette of journalistic objectivity: it’s okay for us to wish the governor luck on Election Day, but I didn’t see anybody besides me put hand to heart during the national anthem at the rally.)

Spirits were high, and spirits were flowing. One reporter (not me) was stuffed in an overhead bin for a moment. Some of us commemorated our last occasion of freedom from FAA regulations by having a “standing landing.”

We landed for a final rally in Austin. Again, Bush didn’t improvise too much. Here is some of what he said: “If people do what I think they’re gonna do, you’re lookin’ at the next president of the United States…my spirits are high, I feel great…I’m grateful for Texas, I’m grateful for Texas, and I’m proud to be a Texan…you watch what’s gonna happen out in the great state of California.” Bush praised his staff for the absence of backbiting: “They’re going to deserve a lot of credit tomorrow night when the American people speak.”

He concluded, “What this country needs is a leader who will unite us.” He promised, as ever, to uphold the honor and integrity of the presidency if elected.

And with that, the campaign was over.

11/6/00, 7:30 p.m., CST flying from Davenport, Ia. to Bentonville, Ark.

Why did George W. Bush spend the last week of the campaign in places such as California, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas? The prevailing view is that Bush is playing a confidence game: Going into presumably hostile territory will make him look confident of victory, and some swing voters will want to join his bandwagon. Gore supporters will be demoralized, and some of them will figure that if Bush is going to win anyway, they might as well vote for Nader.

No doubt the Bush campaign will be delighted if its trips have these effects. But there’s something more, and less, going on here, too.

The confidence-game analysis of Bush’s recent tactics reminds me of a common explanation for the attention paid to blacks and Hispanics at the Republican convention: that Bush wasn’t really trying to appeal to minorities, but rather was scoring points with white voters who wanted him to look as though he were trying to do that. Writing in the New Republic, Michelle Cottle said Bush was engaged in a “ricochet pander.” In both cases, Bush appears to be “reaching out” to one group of voters (whether defined by race or geography) but is suspected of having another group of voters in mind.

But in both cases, the surface explanation has some merit. (It’s a very superficial person who doesn’t judge by appearances, as Wilde pointed out.) Bush would like to get blacks and Hispanics to vote for him, and he would like California to be in his column. That he may not expect to succeed in these endeavors does not make them insincere. And he can reasonably hope to get a few more minority votes than previous Republican nominees, and to get the electoral votes of Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arkansas.

The “ricochet pander” is also defensible on its own terms. All it means is that some voters want a presidential candidate to reassure them that he will govern with the interests of all Americans in mind, and that he is trying to give them that reassurance. I can’t see what’s wrong with that.

Going to California serves a similar purpose. Since before the Iowa straw poll, Bush aides have said they were running a national campaign. Visiting California is a way for Bush to show swing voters from Minneapolis to Miami that he wants to lead the country — that he seeks a mandate, not just a cobbled-together plurality.

Building a mandate and building the country are not infrequently the same activity. Getting more minority votes serves both purposes. And during Bush’s visit to California, he made stops in three congressional districts that are currently held by Republicans (Tom Campbell, Steve Kuykendall, and Jim Rogan) but could go Democratic.

There is, in short, a logical connection between Bush’s travels and his compassionate conservatism. If he is playing a confidence game, it is of a fairly high-flown kind. Bush says he’s a different kind of Republican, one with appeal to people who haven’t supported Republicans before. How could he make that claim without going to California and West Virginia?

Green Bay, Wisc., Monday, November 6, 2 P.M., CTS

Today is a six-state day for the Bush campaign: starting in Florida, and shooting to Tennessee, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Arkansas, before reaching Austin, Texas, for a final rally. The traveling press corps is weary and whining. Reporters have heard it all before and don’t relish the prospect of hearing it five more times (in the rain according to the forecasters).

But you may not have heard W.’s stump speech before. Most reporters are above providing a summary; they’re looking for the inside story. Here’s the outside story for those of you who don’t live in a swing state.

Details such as the precise order of Bush’s remarks, of course, vary from speech to speech.

Bush starts by praising the political figures there with him. He tells Republican congressmen to be patient: “Help is on the way.” Then he mentions Laura Bush (yesterday was their anniversary, the day before that her birthday — her 30th, he says cornily).

He promises to bring both parties together to do the people’s business. He predicts that voters will reject “the scare tactics of old style politics” — tactics that display a lack of confidence by his opponent in his own ideas.

He outlines his goals for Social Security: protecting benefits for the elderly, letting younger people invest some of their contributions to the program. (At the eight or nine rallies I’ve attended over the last two days, the line about investment has gotten more applause than the line about protecting benefits. That wouldn’t have happened four years ago — but then a serious presidential candidate wouldn’t have made the proposal four years ago.)

Then he talks about military readiness. He notes that his opponents accuse him of running down the military, but says it’s the job of a leader to anticipate problems. He promises to protect veterans’ benefits, and to avoid “endless peacekeeping missions.”

On education, Bush says he will leave no child behind, but will let kids leave rotten schools behind. He promises local officials that he has no desire to be a “federal superintendent of schools.” Bush is said to be an ideological innovator on education policy, but what he’s selling now is conventionally conservative: local control and vouchers with a dash of sentimentality.

He talks about Medicare. No senior citizen, he says, should have to choose between food and medicine (sigh). He notes that his opponents ran on a promise to reform Medicare in 1992 — and in 1996 they made the same promise again. Bush quotes Gore saying “We ain’t seen nothing yet,” and says, “He’s right — we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Bush proceeds to list other reforms the Dems have promised but not delivered. Sometimes the crowd picks up the refrain, “We ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Surplus is the people’s money, he says, and should be returned to the people through tax cuts as a matter of justice, not generosity. Tax cuts are especially urgent now given the high gas prices caused by the administration’s “failed energy policy.” Gore’s targeted tax cuts are bossy, deceptive, and — given Gore’s stated intention of “picking the right people” for tax breaks — un-American. “Everyone is the right person as far as I’m concerned,” Bush says.

Bush says he does not underestimate the challenge of “running against incumbency.” His opponent is a (confidant breed of boastful) man who claims to have invented the Internet. Bush gleefully observes that every website address “begins with — W — three Ws!”

His opponent is a fan of Washington and big government, though he lies about it. Gore has proposed more spending than Dukakis/Mondale combined. But while Gore believes in government, Bush believes in people. He also believes in people helping people, one by one, through mentoring programs, religious charities, and the like. When he takes the oath of office, the good people of America will have a president who will set a good example, uphold the law, and uphold the dignity and honor of the office.

Cue the confetti and the Latin music.

Most of Bush’s themes from the last year have made their way into the speech: vestigial compassionate conservatism, an appeal to Clinton fatigue, the anti-big-government argument of the last two months. Every George W. Bush is here, except for the “reformer with results.” Bush doesn’t mention his Texas record these days. (Nobody votes on that kind of thing in a national election.) This is W., take him or leave him.

Glenside, Penn., Saturday, 4:30 P.M.

George W. Bush has just finished speaking at an outdoor rally here, and Karen Hughes, his communications director, is boogying. If that’s the right word. She’s doing more than just tapping her feet, but not really dancing, as she fields a couple of questions from reporters.

Is her body language part of the spin? She could be trying to project confidence. Or maybe she has too much nervous energy — it’s three days until the election, and two days since the DUI story broke. Or maybe she just likes Ricky Martin.

She’s certainly in a better mood than the dozen or so protestors who have gathered just outside the event. They are not undecided voters. Some of them look too young to be voters at all.

There seems to be a bit of a backlash against undecided voters in the press now; articles in National Review and The New Republic, among other places, have assailed their stupidity and ignorance. The protesters here serve as a reminder that a lot of the politically committed are no prizes either.

Their posters are unrelievedly nasty and witless. “Snort coke?” “Gore-Lieberman: The Sober Choice.” “DWI.” Well, at least that one is succinct. There is also a sign saying “Lick My Bush,” which was almost clever — in 1988. They are not signs that suggest confidence in Gore’s likelihood of winning.

One kid is ranting incomprehensibly about how there will be more “crack babies” if Bush wins. “When a crack baby kills you, Al Gore will be laughing. . .” A middle-aged woman, with tall hair and one of those red-white-and-blue outfits that appear only at Republican rallies, is trying to argue with the boy. When he uses the F-word, she tries to slap him. A cop leads her away, saying that he understands her anger but that “there’s no excuse for that.” Another defeat for hidden law.

For a while, the Bush and Gore partisans were yelling at each other across the police barrier. The Gore kids see some NRA buttons and start chanting, “NRA, go away!” A clean-cut young man, supporting Bush, yells back, “Cocaine is a step above weed!” Class will tell, I guess.

Members of a group called “Bikers for Bush” were well represented at the rally. (They were the ones trying hard, not wholly successfully, to stifle their laughter during the “We want Bush!” chant.) These are central-casting bikers, and a few of them are eyeing the scrawny protesters a few rows back as the barriers are finally removed. One of them says, “If they’d’ve let us out first. . .”

The protesters are vastly outnumbered, even without the bikers, and they’re doing their best to offend an excited crowd. One has to admire their courage, if not their manners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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