The Washington Times
George W. Bush had as good a first week as any new president could wish – a fact all the more remarkable for the electoral tumult on his way to the White House.
For more than two years now, we have been hearing from those close to Mr. Bush, especially the Republican governors who were the first to settle on him as the candidate for 2000, about how good a politician he is. This reputation, however, was impossible to square with his performance as a candidate on the presidential campaign trail, especially in the early going.
The “front porch” strategy of the campaign’s opening promised something that wasn’t delivered. It featured an endless parade of GOP bigwigs and midwives traveling to Austin to meet privately with and then pay public homage to the Texas governor – at the end of which, virtually the entire GOP establishment was on the Bush bandwagon. Then came the surprising announcement about the campaign’s unprecedented fundraising prowess. The Bush campaign seemed to be running on a platform of inevitability. Then, at last, off the porch came the candidate – and instead of the expected Superman, out came a second-term governor with little national experience and only five years in the public eye, a man not apparently well-versed on issues and inclined to mispronunciation and malapropism. He would get better – although not before having to fight for his political life against the insurgent campaign of Sen. John McCain, whose compelling personal story rushed in to fill the vacuum left by Mr. Bush’s unimpressive debut.
The McCain challenge behind him, Mr. Bush was lucky to face an opponent in the general election who never seemed to settle on what kind of campaign he wanted to run. Democrats are now in the process of assessing what went wrong for Al Gore. This is a subject worth extended examination, but for now, let us say that some Democrats think he ran too far to the left for a center-right electorate, and some that he was too much of a centrist for his party’s liberal base. This very disagreement neatly captures the unfixed quality of the Gore campaign. What was that about?
But one could, by the end, say with some precision what the Bush campaign was about, and the reason for this is that the candidate himself said, over and over again, what he wanted to do, both in terms of style (change the tone, a uniter not a divider, restore dignity) and substance (education reform that leaves no child behind, a big tax cut, rebuilding defense). Mr. Bush stuck to his themes and issues tenaciously to the end.
For Republicans who wished Mr. Bush was a better campaigner, persistence was not what they had in mind. I think the sought-after trait was facility, a command of issues combined with an ability to think on one’s feet. Interestingly, these are the primary virtues of the intellectual class, or what passes for it on cable. Quite why the virtues of a politician should be the same is not obvious, and begins on closer examination to look like a conceit of the intellectuals.
One could not, by definition, know that Mr. Bush would stick to his guns to the end until he finished doing so at the end, election day. Now, we find him in office sounding precisely the same themes and working exactly the issues he said he would. This consistency is the mark of political skill. He seems to have a very clear sense of what he wants to do.
This quality explains two things about the Florida fiasco. First, it accounts for Mr. Bush’s own insubstantiality during the protracted post-election fight. He was either missing from the public eye or putting in an appearance looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. That’s because there was nothing for him to do, and he had nothing much to say. The campaign was over, but there was no governing to begin.
Second, it accounts for Mr. Bush’s ability to leave the Florida mess behind him. He is, to all appearances, the same President Bush he would have been had he won Florida in a landslide – the same issues, the same themes, the same Cabinet, the same White House staff. Democrats have invited him to be contrite about how he got to the White House and conciliatory toward them, thanks to the questions about his legitimacy. But he has established no White House Office of Legitimacy Acquisition. His political outreach to Democrats, once again, seems to have nothing to do with Florida and everything to do with how he long intended to pursue his agenda. Knowing what you want and knowing how you want to pursue it are no guarantee of political success. But they are probably prerequisites.