Example, Bush's Strategy
April 27, 2002
By Joby Comstock
Bush was elected governor in Texas, his first actions were
very right wing. Just as people started to get uncomfortable
with him, he shifted to the middle, and won reelection handily.
Bush was aware of his own strategy. At the recent Gridiron
Club roast of Tom Daschle, Bush fired a few lines at Daschle
that were hilarious, and frighteningly sharp. I'm paraphrasing
from memory. "How are you going to run against me, Tom? What
are your issues? Education? I'm for it. Campaign finance reform?
I'll sign it. Childcare benefits? I'll provide them for families
who don't even have kids!"
Good lines, and anyone who thinks Bush is stupid should read
them. Bush is brilliant at in-your-face power politics. He
is lazy and ignorant to the extreme on policy and leadership
issues, but as a personal snake, there are few his equal.
We need to be aware of this.
Bill Clinton was a liberal. I know this will start another
argument, but I will state it anyway. Everything Bill Clinton
did was an effort to promote an agenda so liberal that often
his own party turned on him. Remember the purge of Democrats
from Congress in 1994? The media misrepresents this as a coup
pulled off by Newt Gingrich, who capitalized on Clinton's
unpopularity with the voters. But the media missed the point.
Bill Clinton's early agenda was unashamedly liberal. Health
care, gay rights, Lani Guinier... Too liberal for Congress.
Sam Nunn, Democrat (in name only), led the charge against
gay rights. Afterwards, the Democrats in Congress went to
great lengths to abandon Clinton. They refused to back him
on key issues, like health care. Two years later many of them
campaigned for reelection by running against Clinton. One
guy in Oklahoma said "I'm a Democrat, but not a Clinton Democrat."
He lost. Many Democrats who ran like this lost. A Democrat
who runs against his party leader loses Democratic votes and
does not pick up Republican votes. And moderates aren't interested
in candidates who play both sides. Voters are not that easily
Two candidates who did win were Ted Kennedy and Charles Robb.
Both were far behind in the polls. Both were painted as "Clinton
liberals" by their opponents. Both of them embraced the label.
But Clinton lost his Democratic Congress, and he learned
a lesson. Just as he did after his first loss in Arkansas,
Clinton learned that he could not dictate policy. He had to
persuade, and convince, and trick, and outmaneuver his opponents.
His opponents, led by Newt Gingrich, wanted to undo "socialism,"
or "big government." They wanted to undo FDR's works. Clinton
knew what they wanted. And he had to stop them. But he did
not have the popularity.
So Clinton did what he felt he had to do. He hired Dick Morris,
a conservative, to run continuous polls from the White House,
to gauge the emotions of the public. He then tailored his
speeches to the audience he saw in those polls. And he compromised
on key issues, giving the Republicans just enough to make
the people in those polls feel that Clinton was acceptable,
that he would work with the opposition.
Gingrich's budget that year was a conservative masterpiece.
As Gingrich said, it was the most significant change in government
since 1933- FDR's year. It would have eliminated every government
power Democrats and Greens love so much. Social spending,
government assistance - the plan was to destroy the federal
government and turn everything back over to the smaller, less
efficient and more conservative state governments. It was
the coup-de-grace to win the Reagan Revolution. Gingrich passed
his budget through the House and Senate, and told Clinton
"Either sign it, or shut down the government." Clinton was
irrelevant, Gingrich informed the press. He could only hope
to delay the inevitable. Gingrich had won.
Clinton vetoed the bill. Clinton shut down the government.
And to Gingrich's shock, the public, who had just a year before
expressed their hatred for Clinton, sided with the president.
Why? Simply put, because Clinton had spoken their language,
and had shown he would compromise on key issues. Gingrich
had proven intractable. The gridlock was his fault, and he
backed down. In one of the most brilliant political strategies
in the history of America, Clinton saved FDR. He won.
He won because he had appeared to be something he was not.
He appeared to be a moderate. And he kept up the appearance
throughout his administration. He successfully defended most
social programs, increased spending on education, updated
the Clean Water Act three times, and put more land under federal
protection than any other president of the twentieth century.
And he proved - if anyone cares to use his proof - that a
strong environmental stance could stimulate the economy, rather
than crippling it.
Ironically, his pretense at moderation, even conservatism,
did not fool the Republicans, who saw all of their key issues
go down in flames, but it did fool the liberals, who now only
see the compromises. George W. Bush's policies seem extreme
to many of us, and indeed are increasingly extreme to many
moderate Americans. But they would have been moderate coming
off the Reagan era. Reagan routinely bombed other nations
on flimsy evidence. Reagan sold weapons to nations who had
declared "holy war" against us. Reagan gave money and training
- often illegally - to terrorists who were raping and killing
American nuns in Central America, in addition to tens of thousands,
and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of political opponents.
He campaigned against Affirmative Action, abortion, gays,
liberals, and anybody who had a single thought left of Richard
Mellon Scaife. Reagan won reelection by the largest margin
of victory in American history, and received the largest number
of votes of any candidate in history - ahead of Gore, even.
His popularity carried his vice president into the office
The fact that Bush looks like a right winger now shows how
successful a liberal Clinton was. And Republicans know this.
Especially George W. Bush.
George W. Bush is doing the same thing Clinton did. He comes
off as a right-winger, pushing his agenda on a less-than-willing
populace. People disagree with him on every domestic issue.
If not for the war, his popularity would have waned long ago.
He would be close to Clinton's levels. And like Clinton, Bush
is cleaning house of impure Republicans. He has already chased
Jeffords away. More will follow in November.
And then, when we are feeling smug about Bush's low numbers
and big loss in November, Bush will pretend to move towards
the center. As he threatened Daschle, he will sign our bills,
support our agendas, and undercut our righteousness. And the
public will see a conversion, and we will look intractable
when we oppose him. We will have to compromise with him. And
as the Republicans saw with Clinton, we will see our key issues
slowly undercut, dying a death of a thousand slashes. And
we will scream like extremists about how wing-nut Bush is,
while the media reports his moderation, and the Republicans
grin and slap each other on the backs.
Maybe then we'll understand Clinton better.
It is not inevitable. Bush, nor Rove, is anywhere near as
brilliant as Clinton. Bush still has to speak, and his platitudes
will wear thin. And Bush will continue to make policy mistakes,
since he has no ideology - nor understanding - to guide his
choices between the competing options offered by his divergent
advisors. Bush still might fail, because he is Bush, and not
Clinton. But we need to be prepared.
And most of all, we need to be aware.