Frame Game

The Muteness of Prince George

Read his lips: No comment.

Gov. George W. Bush, R-Texas, announced Sunday that he is forming a committee to explore whether he should run for president. After a parade of adulatory speeches from committee members, he fielded questions. One reporter asked whether abortion should be illegal in the first trimester. “That’s a hypothetical question,” said Bush. What about global economic instability? “I won’t have specific remedies or specific suggestions until I start moving around the country,” Bush replied. Should we build a missile defense system even if it violates the anti-ballistic missile treaty? “I will be glad to answer all those questions once I get out in the course of the campaign,” Bush offered, ending the press conference.

What a charade. Bush’s “campaign” has been underway for a year. He has plotted strategy, assembled a campaign team, pitched to donors, courted politicians, and written letters to potential allies in key states. His fund-raisers expect to collect $10 million by the end of March. For the next three months, his “exploratory” committee will raise money and build a campaign staff. Yet Bush remains clueless about many national issues and, on others, he knows he can only lose votes by being pinned down. Moreover, the longer he postpones his candidacy, the longer he deprives his rivals of a target, thereby starving them to death. For these reasons, Bush is claiming immunity to policy questions. And he’s getting away with it, thanks to several excuses.

1.I’m doing my job. At his press conference, Bush refused to answer questions about tax cuts and other “issues” until Texas finishes its legislative session in May. He explained that being governor is his “job” and that he had promised Texans he would stay home through the session. “I’m a person who does in office what I say I will do,” he insisted. Former GOP Chairman Haley Barbour, a member of the exploratory committee, seemed deeply moved. “I think Gov. Bush’s keeping his commitment to Texas shows what kind of leader George Bush is,” said Barbour.

Lest anyone contemplate the convenience of this excuse, Bush spun it as a sacrifice. He regretted that he wouldn’t be “able” to visit key primary states for months. “Some have said, ‘Well, you’re gonna be too late in some state,’ ” he lamented. But “I’ve got a job to do.” The press swallowed this line whole. Bush “is understandably reluctant to leave Austin at least until the Legislature concludes its work,” said U.S. News & World Report. “He has defied conventional wisdom by refusing to travel the country to raise money and court supporters.”

2.Read my principles. Bush outlined his “core, conservative principles”–“limited government,” “low taxes,” “free and fair trade,” “local control of schools,” “strong families,” and “personal responsibility.” When asked about specific issues, he referred back to his principles. “How exactly do you plan to preserve the prosperity of the United States?” asked one reporter. “When I start to emerge out of the state after the legislative session,” said Bush, “I’m going to lay out an economic stimulus package that will do just that. You heard the principles by which I’ll be making decisions.” On foreign policy, he said only that his “framework” would emphasize what’s “good for America.”

3. Read my testimonials. To deflect scrutiny from his own views, Bush stacked his committee with people who can vouch for him. At the press conference, President Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, and President Bush’s national security aide, Condoleezza Rice, vouched for Gov. Bush’s toughness on foreign policy. Reps. J.C. Watts Jr., R-Okla., and Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, vouched for his racial inclusiveness. Pro-choice Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., vouched for his belief in individual freedom. When a reporter asked what Bush would do about Russia’s meltdown, Bush cited his “principles,” babbled about missile defense, and said, “I of course will be relying upon the briefings on details from people such as Dr. Rice.” With friends like these, who needs positions? “He has George Shultz advising him on foreign policy,” observed ABC’s George Will with delight.

Bush’s personnel moves serve him particularly well on social issues. He has conspicuously courted former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, and in January he made a pilgrimage to coalition founder Pat Robertson. Without publicly embracing any of the coalition’s positions, Bush elicited from Robertson the magic words, “He loves the Lord.” Conservative pundits are particularly excited over Bush’s recruitment of conservative Christian speech writer Mike Gerson. Noting that Gerson “wrote Bob Dole’s anti-Hollywood speech in 1996,” Fred Barnes inferred on Meet the Press that “one issue on which we’re going to hear a lot from [Bush] is cultural conservatism.”

4.Read my polls. Since Bush’s advantages lie in politics rather than policy, he steers attention to his campaign juggernaut rather than to his platform. “The men and women on this stage represent the best of the Republican Party,” he boasted at his press conference. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., handed Bush “a list of 80 current members of Congress who have already endorsed your candidacy,” and Bush’s aides distributed a similar list to reporters. On the weekend chat shows, pundits marveled at Bush’s deluge of endorsements, his bottomless coffers, and his godlike standing in the polls. Bush never explicitly brings up money or polls, because he doesn’t have to. But he counts on them to keep the press pining for him while he stiffs policy questions.

5. Shame on you. When pressured to clarify his positions, Bush morphs the question into attack politics and attack journalism. “I will campaign on my beliefs and my principles, and I will not engage in the petty politics of personal destruction,” he insisted. A reporter asked him about conservative opponents who associate him with his father’s moderation. “I’m going to try to work hard not to play the typical political game of tearing down your opponent,” Bush sniffed, “and I would hope others wouldn’t tear down my dad.”

Bush’s wife and daughters provide another handy shield. “I had doubts and concerns about what a campaign would mean for my family,” he confided to the assembled scribes. “I convinced my wife that I love her and I’ll always love her. That’s the only thing that’ll overcome the meat-grinding aspects of national politics.” From the podium, Dunn and Rice, two of the committee’s three front women, implored Bush’s wife and daughters to endure the campaign’s “trial by fire.” Bush has milked this protective anguish for months. Never mind that according to Time, he privately told several financial backers in January, “I love my wife. And I love my daughters. … But they don’t have a veto on this.”

Bush’s portrayal of substantive interrogation as nasty nit-picking has completely suckered the media. Time reported that his rivals were trying to “pose litmus-test questions” and “tear Bush down.” U.S. News accused them of “picking at his credentials” and warned, “Bush will accept only so much battering.” Quoting a Pat Buchanan adviser’s demand that Bush “take some positions” on “abortion, taxes, China, homosexual rights,” U.S. News groaned that Buchanan “seems poised for another round of bashing the front-runner.” On Meet the Press, Lamar Alexander said of Bush’s vagueness: “We need to define what we mean. Are we for a single-rate flat tax? Or are we, as I am, for tripling the tax deduction for each child to $8,000? Are we for affirmative action based on need, as I am, or based on race? Are we for English for the children on the first day of school, or are we for federal bilingual education programs? I’m arguing for plain talk, not weasel words.” To which host Tim Russert replied, “Why won’t you abide by the 11th Amendment and stop criticizing George W. Bush?”

Meanwhile, Bush suffers in silence as his fund-raisers bleed the field dry. “I’ll play the hand I was dealt,” he shrugs stoically. Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver gag in his mouth.