Will Bush bounce back?
By Paul M. Weyrich
Washington is all-abuzz about the Bush boys. Here was a virtually flawless campaign, with ironclad discipline, which stayed on message all through the long primary season beginning in mid 1999. One after the other, big names were blown by the wayside. Elizabeth Dole, said by the media at least to be a first rate competitor, proved to be no match for the Texas Governor. The Religious Righteous Brothers, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, both extraordinary intellects and able debaters, didn't even become an irritant to Bush. Steve Forbes, the one candidate who emerged from the run against Bob Dole stronger than before the 1996 campaign, seemed promising, especially after Iowa. But again it wasn't long before the Bush machine disposed of him.
The only real threat to Bush turned out to be Sen. John McCain. For a brief moment it seemed as if Bush might be in trouble. But in just a few short weeks, and with remarkably few concessions, Bush finished off McCain. From there until the GOP convention in Philadelphia, Bush stayed on message as no candidate since JFK in 1960 has done.
The convention, however one views its execution, turned out to be another masterstroke for Bush media relations. The selection of Dick Cheney as Bush's running mate was the proverbial "10." And Bush's acceptance speech in Philadelphia was the best of the 10 both Bob Novak and I have witnessed in our days of attending GOP conventions.
So what has happened since then? Bush stayed on message about a week or so beyond the GOP convention and the polls gave him a strong bounce. But then came the selection of Senator Lieberman as Al Gore's running mate. Somehow, the Bush people had not expected this move. Then there was Bill Clinton's swansong, the kiss, and Al Gore's State of the Union speech a few months too early.
From that moment forward, the Bush people seem to have lost their ability to focus their campaign. And that is what all of the buzz is about. The conspiracy theorists warn darkly that Bush was chosen to throw the election purposely.
Those who think they have some sort of inside track in Austin claim that while Bush is "off message" right now, he will come roaring back, just you wait. Others who have tried to make input on the prescription drug issue, for example, shake their heads. They say that the Bush camp knew that prescription drugs was the one issue which could cause voters to give the Democrats another free pass for the next four years. Yet the Bush people allowed Gore to get out ahead of him with the Gore proposal, which has now been followed by a huge Gore media buy for this time in the campaign. That is designed to lock in the lead that Gore had acquired right now wherever it is.
One Washington veteran said that perhaps Bush thought if he did everything right up to the convention he could coast along until November. Still another said that maybe Bush doesn't realize that the election is still to take place. While obviously said tongue-in-cheek, heads are wagging harder this week than I've seen them wag in a good long while.
Folks who were not Bush fans had come to have a grudging respect for the Texas Governor and his disciplined crew, led by Karl Rove. By performing so flawlessly for so long, Bush had raised expectations extraordinarily high. Now comes the first big test of the campaign season and things have gotten a bit off the track. And because of those high expectations, both long-time Bush backers and his won-over supporters have begun to panic.
Back in Austin they don't panic as easily. While the perfectionist Bush is no doubt unhappy with the past couple of weeks, in all probability he does have some sort of game plan in mind. It is this sort of episode, however, which always causes his opponents to underestimate him. This time, however, no one is quite sure who is right. Is Bush just biding his time and come the first of October we won't even remember this bump in the road? Or is this symptomatic of a campaign, such as Barry Goldwater's in 1964, which had the nomination strategy all worked out but the general election strategy was still being worked on as the ballots were being printed. All those wagging heads sure wish they knew.
Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.
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