Frame Game

Beating Around the Bush

George W. flaunts the courage of his clichés.

Everything you need to know about Gov. George W. Bush, R-Texas, you learned in kindergarten. Launching his presidential campaign in Iowa this weekend, Bush outlined a threefold agenda: to impose “bad consequences for bad behavior” and “love our neighbor as we want to be loved ourselves”; to help churches and charities “to nurture, to mentor, to comfort” people in need; and to insist that “every child must be educated.”

A less daring platform can scarcely be imagined. Yet the media lauded Bush’s speech for its boldness, citing the “contrasts” he drew with President Clinton while “appealing to a different kind of audience from the one that had elected his father” and “distinguishing himself from the rest of the crowded Republican field.” How does Bush pass off his clichés as confrontations? By fabricating illusory distinctions and debates.

1. Compassionate conservatism. This is Bush’s unofficial slogan. Saturday in Iowa, Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, introduced Bush as “a conservative with a conscience, with compassion.” Bush used the word “compassion” 13 times in his speech, concluding: “I know this approach has been criticized. But why? Is compassion beneath us? Is mercy below us? Should our party be led by someone who boasts of a hard heart? … I’m proud to be a compassionate conservative. I welcome the label. And on this ground I will make my stand.” The crowd applauded, and the press swooned. As the Los Angeles Times described the scene: “Taking up a challenge from some opponents, Bush defended his philosophy of ‘compassionate conservatism.’ “

How does Bush spin compassion, the world’s most universal value, as a courageous “stand”? As with most magic tricks, the sleight of hand occurs at the outset, when Bush says his philosophy “has been criticized.” In truth, none of Bush’s rivals has criticized compassion or boasted of a hard heart. On the contrary, some call “compassionate conservatism” an offensive phrase because it suggests that unmodified conservatives lack compassion (just as many liberals complained that Vice President Al Gore’s “practical idealism” implied that unmodified idealists were impractical). Others dismiss this phrase as “weasel words” designed to substitute for positions on specific issues. What Bush’s opponents have “criticized,” in short, is not his “approach” but its redundancy and insubstantiality. By conning the media into reporting that he was “defending his philosophy,” Bush snuffed out the real question: whether he has a philosophy to defend.

2. Prosperity with a purpose. This is Bush’s official campaign theme. It’s supposed to convey what he offers that Gore doesn’t. Clinton and Gore may have brought us prosperity, the slogan suggests, but Bush will give our prosperity a purpose. And what is that purpose? According to Bush: “America must be prosperous so that anybody who wants to work can find a high quality, high paying job. America must be prosperous so that people can realize their entrepreneurial dreams. America must be open so that every citizen knows the promise of America. America must be educated so that all our citizens can realize the American dream.” In other words, the purpose of prosperity is … prosperity.

3. The responsibility era. Bush doesn’t talk about moral issues that might get him into trouble, such as abortion or homosexuality. Instead, he pledges “to usher in the responsibility era,” in which we will “confront illegitimacy,” instill “discipline and love” in juvenile justice, and accept that “we’re responsible for our neighbors and helping in our communities.” Lest anyone point out the abstractness and obviousness of these commitments, Bush says they stand in “stark contrast to the last few decades, when our culture has clearly said, ‘If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else.’ ” Does Bush really think the last few decades, supervised in large part by his father and President Reagan, were the era of irresponsibility? Or is he painting a dark background to lend the illusion of luster to his pale moral agenda?

Likewise, Bush often uses sharp language to obscure fuzzy thought. “Some people think it is inappropriate to draw a moral line in the sand. Not me,” he proclaims. And what is his line? “Children must learn to say yes to responsibility, yes to hard work, yes to honesty, and yes to family.” Likewise, Bush asserts, “We must teach [our children] there are … wrong choices.” Such as? Drugs, alcohol, and teen pregnancy, he says. And what’s wrong with teen pregnancy? It’s “a sure-fire way to fall behind,” he explains, using the language not of a pulpit but of a Planned Parenthood clinic.

4. New idealism. In Iowa, Bush elicited applause and media excitement by taking what the Los Angeles Times called “several shots” at Clinton. “I will not use my office as a mirror to reflect public opinion,” declared Bush. “Government should not try to be all things to all people.” “I do not run polls to tell me what to think.” “We will show that politics, after a time of tarnished ideals, can be higher and better. We will give our country a fresh start after a season of cynicism.” “Americans are waiting for new hopes, new energy and new idealism.”

The difference between an idealist and a cynic, in this view, is that the idealist is willing to take a stand contrary to public opinion. On taxes? Bush proposes “to give Americans more money” in the name of “compassion.” On special interest pork? He told Iowans he supports ethanol subsidies. On Kosovo? He “welcomes” the peace agreement but says “America should be suspicious” of it. On the GOP’s campaign against James Hormel, the gay man Clinton has appointed to be ambassador to Luxembourg? Bush says that any qualified appointee should be allowed to serve but that he won’t speak out against the campaign because Hormel isn’t conservative. On fiscal restraint? Bush says, “[A]fter we meet priorities, when we have money left over, we must pass it back to the taxpayers.” Note the caveat about “priorities.” Sound familiar?

Like his father, Bush substitutes virtue for substance. When asked by Newsweek what his family stands for, George W. answered, “Honesty, integrity, serving for the right reasons.” And what are those reasons? “America, and what America stands for,” he replied. “To bring integrity and decency to the process and to serve for the right reason, which is country above self. But I’m going to have a specific agenda that addresses what I think are the big concerns as we go into the 21st century.” The younger Bush’s constant assurances that he’s going to unveil his “10-point plans” and “specific incentives” any day now–a vague pledge to be specific–are the functional equivalent of his father’s constant allusions to “vision.” The less you have of something, the more you boast of it abstractly.

5. A uniter, not a divider. Bush’s greatest feat has been to spin his evasion of controversies as a virtue. “A leader must be a uniter, not a divider,” he declares. “This country is hungry for a new-style campaign” that is “positive, hopeful, inclusive” and “unites America.” With those words, the Republican front-runner takes a bold stand against taking bold stands. Shame on lesser candidates who demand that he choose sides on the difficult issues of the day. He’s in his own league. And by selling the media distinctions without a difference, he intends to keep it that way.