How Bush can win

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 15, 2000

I am no George W. enthusiast, and given the legitimate conservative third-party alternatives available, I may not even be able to bring myself to vote for him in November. Nor will enough other people, my instincts are beginning to tell me, to bring him to victory over Al Gore. But all is not lost yet, and I readily admit that I hope Bush - quintessential Republican "lesser evil" that he is - gets his act together before we have a Gore administration.

First, Bush must lose the smirk. He can be charming and appear like just an ordinary guy, very appealing qualities in a candidate facing off against a vice president Christopher Buckley quips "speaks to the American people as if English were their second language." But he must behave as if he is a bit older than Elian Gonzales, which means no more churlish jokes about female pickaxe murderers begging him for their lives and no more prepubescent swaggering - such as taunting reporters to ask him who the president of India is, especially when he hasn't the faintest idea who is president and who is prime minister.

Second, the Texas governor must confront Gore's infantile "risky tax scheme" rhetoric head-on. Bush must repeatedly point out that the federal government is no smaller than when Bill Clinton took office. Gore not only opposes scaling back any current major function undertaken by Washington - which is clearly illustrated by his criticism of the Bush tax-cut plan - but calls for sizeable new spending initiatives in the areas of health care, education and the environment. Taken together with his plans for Social Security and debt retirement, these numbers simply do not add up.

Again, federal domestic spending is no less than when Clinton became president. The surplus thus is not the result of any significant federal belt-tightening, but primarily because of sustained economic growth swelling tax revenues. This growth in large part is fueled by the lower cost of capital. Tax reduction proposals such as Bush's would, rather than "blowing a hole in the surplus," lower the cost of capital and preserve the economic conditions which made the surplus possible. Gore, on the other hand, would increase spending in ways that mathematically would require the surplus to become smaller and eventually inch up the tax burden.

Bush must not merely assume this as a defensive posture; he must take the offensive against Gore's pretensions of fiscal responsibility. The vice-president must be aggressively portrayed as the candidate whose policies truly would spend the surplus and then kill the goose that laid the golden egg of economic growth.

When Gore inevitably counters that he and Clinton are responsible for the longest economic expansion in history, Bush must emphatically point out that this concedes that the expansion began when his father was president - when Clinton and Gore were both claiming America was in the midst of recession. Otherwise, Clinton and Gore cannot claim a longer period of growth than the Reagan expansion - an opportunity for Gov. Bush to note that the economy has grown 97 percent of the time since Ronald Reagan implemented his marginal tax-rate reductions.

Third, Bush must propose to cut direct federal subsidies to big business. This will accomplish several objectives. Most importantly, it deals directly with the one category of spending it is politically possible for Gore to propose cutting in response to a challenge of his budgetary discipline. It also has the attractive features of wrapping Bush in the McCain reform mantra, which has wide appeal to swing voters without abandoning conservative principles, and defusing his image as the nominee of corporate America. The Cato Institute counts some $85 billion per year in corporate welfare to be placed on the chopping block.

Fourth, Bush must remain true to his commitment to a strong national defense. Defense is another category of spending Gore may propose cutting if desperate, yet is the one area where we can ill afford to do so. The number of military units capable of accomplishing their missions has declined since the end of the Cold War and is at record lows in some service branches. The U.S. Army's deployment capability is down 44 percent since the Persian Gulf War and Navy support ships have been cut some 61 percent. Defense spending now accounts for the smallest share of GDP since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Fifth, Bush must name a pro-life running mate. The only pro-choice Republican who can produce a net gain in voters for the ticket is the immensely popular Colin Powell, who will surely say no. All other pro-choice possibilities will serve merely to drive millions of pro-life voters away from the GOP ticket. Evangelical Christians, traditional family values advocates and pro-life voters are the most committed segment of the GOP electorate; a pro-choice running mate would prompt many of them to support Pat Buchanan. Moreover, given Bush's profession of pro-life convictions, most pro-abortion voters would still favor Gore. You can't have it both ways.

Which brings us to the final point: Bush must avoid the typically inept Republican pandering to groups that will never vote for him in the first place and which only serves to alienate and demoralize the base. One of course does not wish to reinforce all the opposition's caricatures of one's candidacy. But Republicans too often worry more about placating those who oppose them than delivering for their supporters. Pat Buchanan's Reform Party candidacy, among others, offers conservatives a real alternative to Bush and the GOP, which many of us will be sorely tempted to support in any event. Bush must heed Reagan's example of communicating conservative principles in ways that appeal to broader audiences, rather than abandoning them wholesale.

Bush has a long way to go. But if he defines himself and the terms of the debate, rather than allowing himself to be an unprincipled establishment Republican who is always on the defensive, this is still a very winnable presidential race.

W. James Antle III has worked for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail him at Jimantle@aol.com

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