February 23, 2000
The Republican Sheep Theory was proven true in South Carolina.
That's the axiom that holds GOP voters generally do what they are told to do (what else could explain the Republican electorate in 1996 walking off the Bob Dole cliff lemming-like?). South Carolina GOPers were commanded by the party's establishment to vote for George W. Bush and save the party from John McCain's hostile takeover; they saluted and acted accordingly. Bush's whopper of a win in the Palmetto state -- 53 to 42 percent -- demonstrated that money, machine politics, pandering, and negative ads work quite well.
With the McCain panic partly defused, it's a good time for the following pop quiz: should Bush become president, where would he rate among US presidents in terms of previous government experience? Thirty-eighth out of forty-two. The four chief executives who possessed even less governing experience prior to running for president were Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson, Ulysses Grant, and Zachary Taylor. Three of the four were war heroes -- a mantle that Guardsman George cannot claim. Wilson was president of Princeton before being elected New Jersey governor in 1910. Two years later, he won the Democratic nomination on the 46th ballot at the convention in Baltimore (C-SPAN execs would kill for a convention like that). Wilson then defeated Republican William Taft and Progressive Teddy Roosevelt for the presidency and, after promising not to do so, led the United States into World War I. Bush has served a measly one-and-a-half terms as a constitutionally-weak governor in a state where the legislature meets only every other year (being governor in Texas, columnist Molly Ivins quips, qualifies you for being lieutenant-governor). Bush suffers not only a stature gap, but an experience gap.
And it shows, for who the heck is George W. Bush? The compassionate conservative? Or the friend of social conservatives at racist Bob Jones University? A scion of the GOP elite who, with little effort, snagged $70 million from the party's moneybags? Or a drawlin' Washington outsider? A moderate Republican who triangulates from the House GOPers? Or the white knight of the Republican establishment, which has showered him with endorsements? He's not been in public life long enough for anyone to know for sure.
In South Carolina, Bush put out a dizzying merry-go-round of images. To staunch the flow of independents into John McCain's camp, he maintained, absurdly, he was a "reformer." But each day, he was spending $3 million from his fat-cat coffers. He also proclaimed he was the fellow who could best bring together Republicans and Democrats in Washington. But, at the same time, he lurched hard-right to portray himself as the only real Republican in the race. Before New Hampshire, the compassionate conservative routine had seemed a stroke of genius. Lookatthis! A Republican who wasn't a threatening or grouchy right-winger. What smart marketing. But those Yankees didn't buy it. Now Bush is willing to be whatever he needs to be: a hack for all (how do you say that in Spanish?). Remember the previous be-nice-to-colored-folk Bush who went out of his way to have his photo snapped with cute black and brown children? In the Palmetto state, you didn't see him rushing to grade schools in minority neighborhoods. Not that Bush-of-the-week. Who can guess what he'll be next week?
Bush the Lesser, though, does absorb his programming well. When he hits a message, he often repeats it. As in, "I know how to lead, how to lead." Is this the needle skipping? Or a double-clutch, as he mentally lunges toward a familiar point, a safe place? There is a trace of Quayle-ish insecurity in his verbal tic. Does he figure if he asserts over and over that he can lead he will convince both voters and himself? There is something pathetic in how vociferously he cites his leadership abilities. A week before the South Carolina contest, Bush explained his visit to Bob Jones University by saying he had wanted to talk to people there about his brand of conservatism: "That's why I went. That's what a leader does. A leader doesn't shirk." In keeping with that logic, Bush soon should be dropping in on the racist Council of Conservative Citizens and the Log Cabin (that is, gay) Republicans, for a leader in his book takes his message to whatever audience will have him, even if that causes him to come across as cravenly. A leader, says George W., is willing to make that sacrifice. For the good of the public, naturally.
A leader, apparently, also defies reason. Bush is a cheerleader for capital punishment. He has presided over far more executions (119 since he took office) than any other governor in the nation. Recently, though, death penalty fans have been put on the defensive. Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican who supports Bush, halted executions in his state, citing the fact that 13 people on his state's death row have been exonerated since 1977 (some due to advances in DNA-related technology). That's one more than the number killed by the state. Since 1976, 85 people nationwide have been released from death row because of new evidence, while 610 have been executed. So for every seven persons killed, one innocent person has been sentenced to death. That's hardly a good margin of error for the most irreversible of actions.
Noting Ryan's bold step, CNN's Larry King asked Bush during the South Carolina debate if he should follow his fellow governor's example. No, said Bush: "I'm actually convinced that everybody who was convicted [and executed] was guilty of the crime. " King pressed Bush: "And you know they all did it?" Bush answered, "Yes, absolutely." Now, all us grown-ups realize that (1) Bush cannot say anything else, and (2) there is no way for him to know "absolutely" that all 119 people who were offed by his government were guilty. What are the chances the Texas justice system got every case "absolutely" right, if Illinois and other states have not?
Death penalty opponents have been emboldened lately. Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, urged President Clinton to halt federal executions. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, introduced legislation that would guarantee all death row inmates access to DNA testing, when it could result in new evidence of their innocence, and grant them the opportunity to present the results in court. Clinton, at his press conference last week, referred positively to the Leahy bill, even as he dismissed Feingold's call. And there's another front some anti-death penalty activists have been considering. Is it possible, they have been whispering to each other in hopeful tones, just possible to prove that one of the people executed in Texas by Bush was innocent? Oh, imagine Bush's reaction, should that occur. Bush the Inexperienced has yet to demonstrate how a leader admits a big, life-and-death mistake.
Bill Bradley, stop, please stop. It's become painful to watch this man try to deny Al Gore his supposed birthright. After placing second in New Hampshire -- where Bradley pounded Gore for falsely declaring he had always been pro-choice -- Bradley has continued to attack Gore for having changed his stance on abortion in the 1980s. Last week, Bradley aired ads blasting Gore for not boasting a lifelong commitment to choice. It's obvious that Bradley is attempting to illustrate a larger notion: Gore is a soulless, finger-in-the-wind politician. Well, duh. But one of the few instances in which the Clinton-Gore Administration has hung tough has been the tussle over abortion rights, including late-term abortions (sources in the abortion-rights field do say, however, that Clinton nearly caved on late-term abortions). Moreover, Gore has won the backing of Gloria Steinem and the National Abortion Rights Action League; last fall Voters for Choice handed him an award. Is this the best strategy the former Knick can concoct -- go after a sitting vice president on an issue where he commands (somewhat justifiably) such support from the Democratic faithful? Are there many Democratic voters who fear Gore cannot now be trusted on choice, who worry that he will flip back once he is top dog in the White House? In fact, Democrats are accustomed to senators and representatives shifting to pro-choice when they decide to run for national office; it's a venerable party tradition.
Is this any way for a supposed insurgent who promotes progressive themes to topple the entrenched Democratic establishment? Pick at Gore's positions from two decades ago? Bradley is wasting his money and ours (like Gore and McCain, he receives federal matching funds because he has agreed to abide by campaign spending limits. Bush the Reformer refuses to play by these rules). If Bradley cares about the issue of reproductive rights, he'd be better off refunding the bucks he's spending on these spots to his contributors and asking them to pass those dollars to Planned Parenthood. Indeed, given his current chances of booting Gore, if Bradley is serious about battling campaign finance sleaze, racism, and child poverty, he ought to consider suspending his presidential bid and sending millions he has in his campaign account to Common Cause, the NAACP, and the Children's Defense Fund. That would produce more progress on these matters than the continuation of a campaign managed by people foolish enough to believe they can win the Democratic primary by running against NARAL and the pro-choice community.