Frame Game

George W.’s Wimp Factor

In 1992, over the protests of outraged liberals, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton flew home in the midst of his presidential campaign to supervise the execution of a retarded killer. The message to voters was that Clinton, unlike previous Democratic presidential candidates, was tough on crime. Last week, after a gunman murdered seven people in a Fort Worth church, Texas Gov. George W. Bush flew home to urge Americans to “pray for love in people’s hearts.” The message this time is that Bush, unlike previous Republican presidential candidates, is compassionate.

If Bush succeeds in projecting such sensitivity, the cure may prove worse than the disease. Republicans used to win elections by calling their Democratic opponents soft on crime. Clinton, first as a candidate and then as president, frustrated this tactic by recasting gun control–previously an issue of “big government”–as an issue of getting tough on thugs. Bush, who opposes most federal gun control proposals and signed the law that lets Texans carry concealed handguns, is in danger of completing this reversal. By fighting crime with “love,” he is coming across not as a gun nut, but as a wimp.

Bush tried to send two messages in response to the Texas shooting. The first is that, as conservatives have traditionally argued, culture–particularly religion–is more important than government. In remarks replayed endlessly on television and in the print media, Bush blamed the shooting on a “wave of evil.” The killer, he surmised, “was acting as a result of evil in his heart. And I would hope that America would collectively pray for love in people’s hearts.” Rather than discuss gun control or prosecution, Bush’s campaign Web site offered visitors a single quote atop his home page: “This is a terrible tragedy made worse by the fact it took place in a house of hope and love. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the congregation.”

Second, Bush tried to project a virtue traditionally scorned by conservatives: compassion. “It’s inexplicable to me how somebody’s heart could be so full of hate that he would walk into a place of worship where youngsters were seeking God’s grace and love and kill people,” Bush told the media. Rushing home to “add some comfort to the pain and sorrow,” Bush regretted that “there’s not much to say” and that “all I could do … was embrace” the victims and their families. “It’s hard to do anything but just to say, ‘I love you,’ ” he lamented. Rather than dismiss the shooter as a cold-blooded killer, Bush called him a “sick person” who must be “demented.”

The second message has curdled the first. Swaddled in hugs, empathy, and spiritual musings on the gunman’s “heart,” Bush’s appeal to cultural renewal instead of government intervention comes across more as a plea for love instead of laws. “We as a society can pass laws and hold people accountable,” he told reporters. “But our hopes and prayers have got to be that there is more love in society.” “I wish I knew the law to make people love one another,” Bush added. “We can pass laws, but there needs to be a higher law. And that is, ‘Love your neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself.’ “

Bush isn’t the only conservative projecting such an oddly mixed message. “Most people are going to understand what a terribly, terribly tragic thing this is, what a horrible tormented person this is,” lamented House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, blaming the massacre on “societal elements that create such empty hearts that commit these crimes,” adopted the leftist pose of victimhood, calling for a federal study of “crimes against men and women of faith.”

While Vice President Al Gore professes reluctance to “politicize” the tragedy, his allies at the Democratic National Committee have seized the opportunity to label Bush soft on crime. “In 1997, Bush went out of his way to make it harder to prosecute gunmen carrying deadly weapons into churches and school events,” the DNC charged. “You can’t say you support law enforcement and then refuse to support law enforcement’s attempts to close the gun show loophole. It’s time for Bush to start listening to law enforcement and stop listening to the NRA.”

Gun control activists have gone further. Speaking on television and in the print media about the Texas massacre, they juxtapose today’s “weak” gun laws with the “tough” restrictions they would prefer. They claim the support of “police” and the enmity of “criminals.” Mocking Bush’s plea that he didn’t “know a governmental law that will put love in people’s hearts,” Handgun Control Chairwoman Sarah Brady blasted “the cowardice of elected officials who blame everything for the carnage–except for the guns.” Texas, she pointedly suggested, “must contemplate what its lax gun laws and liberal gun culture have created.”

The media seem to be having fun with the notion of Bush as a liberal. The Los Angeles Times reported that after the shooting, Bush “again ruled out the need for stronger gun controls. In Texas, Bush has liberalized gun laws.” The New York Times cited speculation that Bush was concerned about “renewed charges by many Democrats that he was soft on guns.” On CNN’s Capital Gang, Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal cracked that “Bush was a little bit Clintonian, flying back from Michigan to feel the pain.” U.S. News & World Report concluded that “while Bush was concentrating on love, Al Gore was concentrating on laws.”

Tuesday, Bush tried to steer his campaign back to the right. Flanked by Texas’ attorney general and the state’s leading prosecutors, he unveiled a plan to hire extra prosecutors who would focus exclusively on gun crimes. Scarcely a sentence passed his lips without a mention of “toughness.” “The best way to protect our citizens is to vigorously enforce the tough laws we have on the books,” Bush declared. “We have some very tough laws against gun violence in Texas, and federal law with its mandatory sentences is tough as well. … Only with tough enforcement can we win the war against gun violence.”

Many Republicans thought Bush’s dad lost in 1992 because he was out of touch. They thought Bob Dole lost in 1996 because he was mean and distant. This time, they were looking for a candidate who knew how to speak the language of love. Next time, they may be looking for a candidate who knows when to stop.

“Frame Game” has also scrutinized Bill Clinton, Al Gore , Bill Bradley, Steve Forbes, and reporters who have hounded George W. Bush.