Frame Game

The Bush Triangulation Strategy

Last week, House Republicans tried to postpone a fiscal squeeze by deferring payment of the Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income workers. Their presidential front-runner, George W. Bush, shot them down. “I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor,” said Bush. Tuesday, speaking in New York about education reform, Bush spanked his party again, this time for projecting pessimism, indifference, and “disdain for government.”

Bush’s broadsides have filled the talk shows and front pages with speculation that he is “triangulating” against congressional Republicans, just as Bill Clinton “triangulated” against left-wing rap artist Sister Souljah in 1992 and against congressional liberals in 1995. But the media’s one-dimensional understanding of triangulation–that Bush is trying to “distance himself from the GOP’s right wing” and “stake out the middle ground” between two extremes–oversimplifies the game. Bush isn’t positioning himself on a straight line between Clinton and the congressional GOP. He isn’t even taking up a third position on their two-dimensional battlefield. He is venturing into a third dimension, rejecting the whole Washington debate, and defining his contest with Al Gore along a new axis. He is trying to render Gore’s three-point campaign message obsolete.

1.The country is doing well. Clinton and Gore constantly recite statistics that reflect well on their administration: more jobs, lower deficits, lower interest rates, fewer people on welfare, less crime. They credit their own policies, particularly the 1993 tax hike, for achieving these results by establishing fiscal responsibility. For years, congressional Republicans predicted that Clinton’s plan would ruin the economy. Then they defied credulity by reversing their message, claiming that the economy was in great shape and that their own policies were responsible for it.

This is the biggest obstacle facing Bush: He is challenging the incumbent vice president in a time of peace and prosperity, and the congressional GOP has not made a persuasive case either that the prosperity is false or that it is true because of Republican efforts in Washington. Clinton and Gore have spent seven years telling Americans the story of how their administration revived the economy. Whether or not this story is true, it is now deeply ingrained in the public consciousness, and Bush can’t look to his party in Washington for an effective rebuttal to it.

Instead, Bush is attempting something far more bold and interesting: He is weaving an alternative story. While focusing on Bush’s criticisms of his party in his speech Tuesday, the media overlooked the more important passage that preceded them. He said:

In state after state, we are seeing a profound shift of [educational] priorities. An “age of accountability” is starting to replace an era of low expectations. … The principles of this movement are similar from New York to Florida, from Massachusetts to Michigan. … At the beginning of the 1990s, so many of our nation’s problems, from education to crime to welfare, seemed intractable. … But something unexpected happened on the way to cultural decline. Problems that seemed inevitable proved to be reversible. They gave way to an optimistic, governing conservatism. Here in New York, Mayor Giuliani brought order and civility back to the streets–cutting crime rates by 50 percent. In Wisconsin, Gov. Tommy Thompson proved that welfare dependence could be reversed–reducing his rolls by 91 percent. Innovative mayors and governors followed their lead–cutting national welfare rolls by nearly half since 1994 and reducing the murder rate to the lowest point since 1967. Now education reform is gaining a critical mass of results. In the process, conservatism has become the creed of hope. The creed of aggressive, persistent reform. The creed of social progress.

What’s important about this narrative is not what it says but what it doesn’t say. It makes no mention of anything that happened in the White House or in Congress. Bush has decided that he can’t win the federal policy debate that has consumed Clinton, Gore, Newt Gingrich, and the national media for seven years. So he has simply erased it. Yes, crime is down, fewer people are on welfare, and school reform is gaining momentum. And yes, the incumbent party deserves credit. But in Bush’s story, that party isn’t the Democratic White House. It’s the state and local GOP.

2.Congress is petty and mean. Republican congressional leaders–Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay–have spent their tenure in the majority denouncing government, bickering with Clinton and the Democrats, impugning their integrity, and blaming them for every problem. They have convinced many people that Clinton and Gore are blameworthy. But they have convinced many others that congressional Republicans are more interested in impugning integrity and fixing blame than in solving problems. The negative portion of Gore’s game plan, therefore, is to lump Bush together with Armey and DeLay as the party of carping and destructiveness.

Bush’s game plan is to turn Gore’s game plan on its head. He’s not going to argue with Gore over which party is destructive or blameworthy. He’s going to reject the whole Washington blame game–undercutting his own party as well as Gore–and portray himself as a man who solves problems instead of complaining about them or blaming them on his enemies. “Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself,” Bush said Tuesday. “Our Founders rejected cynicism and cultivated a noble love of country. That love is undermined by sprawling, arrogant, aimless government. It is restored by focused and effective and energetic government. And that should be our goal: a limited government, respected for doing a few things and doing them well.”

Some House Republicans, including DeLay, have fired back at Bush, accusing him of betraying them, meddling in their business, and distorting their ideas. This counterattack has only helped Bush achieve the distance he sought in the first place. Others, including Armey, have tried to spin Bush’s comments, suggesting that he’s really siding with them against Clinton in the Washington budget fight. They don’t understand that they’ve lost that fight and that Bush is willing to repudiate the fight and everyone in it–including them–in order to ruin Gore’s strategy and beat him.

3.The religious right is scary. Gore, like Clinton, has often used cultural issues such as abortion to make the GOP look extreme. The media and “moderate” Republicans, convinced that these issues are the party’s weakness and that its libertarian economic ideas are its strength, have interpreted Bush’s remarks as a rebuke to Republican “Puritanism.” But a closer look at Bush’s comments suggests the opposite: He is concerned that the party looks mean because of its economic policies, and he is using cultural issues to soften that image by projecting Republican “compassion.”

If Bush had felt a need to triangulate against the cultural right, he could have joined others in repudiating Pat Buchanan for questioning the wisdom of American intervention against Nazi Germany. He didn’t. Alternatively, he could have used his address to the Christian Coalition last Friday to criticize religious intolerance. Instead, he gave a speech that bypassed traditional moral issues such as school prayer and homosexuality and never mentioned the word “abortion.” The media inferred that Bush was ignoring moral issues because the religious right has nowhere else to go. They missed the real story: The reason why Bush doesn’t have to talk about old moral issues that might make him look mean is that he’s introducing new moral issues that make him look warm and caring.

In his speech to the coalition, Bush used the word “compassion” 16 times. He urged Christians to pursue a kinder, gentler mission: “What we need are people who live out their faith in every walk of life, in politics, but also working in crisis pregnancy centers, drug treatment programs, and homeless shelters. People who make God’s work their own. … Our compassion must extend to the poor and to the fatherless. Our compassion must defend the disabled. … I will rally the armies of compassion to nurture, to mentor, to comfort, to perform their commonplace miracles of renewal. … I will involve them in after-school programs, maternity group homes, prison fellowships, and drug treatment programs.”

Tuesday, Bush warned, “Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah. Of course there are challenges to the character and compassion of our nation–too many broken homes and broken lives. But many of our problems–particularly education, crime, and welfare dependence–are yielding to good sense and strength and idealism.” He went on: “Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else–speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, of CBO this and GNP that. Of course we want growth and vigor in our economy. But there are human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence.” On this view, the GOP’s problem is libertarian indifference in Washington, and the solution is to fix “broken homes and broken lives” through “compassion” back home.

Gore recognizes Bush’s strategy and is trying to drag him back into the Washington fight. “He’s now differed with [congressional Republicans] on one little detail,” Gore said on Face the Nation. “If he really wants to try to break with them, he ought to endorse our health-care Patients’ Bill of Rights. He ought to endorse an increase in the minimum wage for the working poor. And he ought to come out against this huge, risky tax scheme.” But Bush isn’t biting, and congressional Democrats, more interested in beating their Republican colleagues than in beating Bush, have welcomed and exploited his indictment of the GOP. Bush doesn’t mind. They can have the battle. He wants the war.