Ballot Box

What Does W. Stand For?

Every day this week, the Washington Post has featured on its front page a new installment of a vast profile of George W. Bush. The length of a short book, the series has explored every nook and cranny of the presumptive Republican nominee’s biography. We hear at length about Bush’s childhood reaction to his little sister’s death from leukemia, his pole vault over the waiting list for the Texas Air National Guard in 1970, and his conversion from Wild Turkey to Cold Turkey in 1986. But as of today (part six of seven), we have learned approximately nothing about what W. thinks about politics.

This isn’t just the fault of policy-averse, personality-driven journalism (though it is partly that). Visit George Bush’s Web site, read his speeches and statements, and you will remain unenlightened as to his views. Bush offers conventional conservative’s bromides about the economy and the family and spends a lot of time talking about his signature idea: faith-based social programs. But if he has a political philosophy that goes beyond pro-business pragmatism and personal concern for society’s unfortunates, he’s hiding it awfully well.

The problem here isn’t simply the lack of specifics–what Bush disparages as “10-point plans.” Members of his brain trust are working on position papers at this very moment, and they’ll soon provide the absent details. What’s odd–and a bit worrying–is that George W. Bush has embarked on a presidential campaign lacking something even more basic: the sort of world-view or approach that equips politicians to formulate an agenda in the first place.

On the great issues of his era, Bush isn’t a pragmatist. He’s a cipher. In an interview excerpt, the Post reporters ask him whether it is true, as they heard from others, that during the Vietnam War, Bush argued on both sides of the issue. Here’s W.’s response: “I don’t remember debates. I don’t think we spent a lot of time debating it. Maybe we did, but I don’t remember.” This does not appear to be a convenient failure to recall opinions that have since become unpopular or embarrassing. It’s the absence of any opinion at all. It’s hard to believe, but the front-runner in the 2000 presidential race is a guy who can’t remember what he thought–or if in fact he thought at all–about the conflict that defined his generation.

In an article in The Weekly Standard a few months ago, Fred Barnes offered a theory about how Bush has neutralized the religious right. Though he eschews most of the issues and themes dear to social conservatives, such as actually trying to ban abortion, Bush wears his Christian beliefs on his sleeve. You might say that he does something similar with secularized voters as well, substituting his personal sense of compassion for the kind of policies that could do something to help the poor. In a big speech in Indianapolis a week ago, Bush singled out a charity called Mission Arlington Texas, where people line up at three or four in the morning for free dentistry. That Bush cares about the people waiting outside the clinic makes you think he’s a decent human being. But people who can’t afford to get their teeth fixed don’t need religious charity. They need dental insurance.

To say that Bush is untainted by ideology does not mean he lacks political instincts. As Bill Clinton did in 1992, he seems to have a fine grasp on why so many voters are turned off by his party. Bush seems prepared to spill some voters off the right side of the GOP yacht in order to get it upright again. In April, it was reported that he had registered Internet domain names for only four potential GOP tickets: Bush-Whitman, Bush-Pataki, Bush-Engler, and Bush-Ridge. All four are centrist northern governors. This was a powerful hint that W. intends to tell Pat Robertson to go play in traffic. I predict that Bush will soon find a moment to blast some marginal figure on the right’s ideological fringe, the way that Clinton dissed Sister Souljah in 1992.

When your task is unifying a divided party, knowing what views to reject, as Bush seems to, may be more important than knowing what policies you support. Those Republican candidates with strong and consistent ideological views–Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer–can appeal only to small factions within the GOP. Others who are eager to serve as vehicles for compromise look unprincipled because of their past records and comments. Steve Forbes, for instance, has undergone a campaign conversion from supply-sider to pious family-values conservative. The result is that no one quite trusts him.

Not having a record on national issues makes it easier to position oneself according to the current political wisdom. That’s one of the reasons governors generally make better presidential candidates than senators–they don’t have congressional voting records to constrict their evolution. Better still is a governor who lacks even private opinions. He’s a political consultant’s perfect Barbie doll. You can dress him in this year’s fashions. And no one will remember him wearing anything different.