Frame Game

Defining W. Down

“I got defined.” For three weeks, that’s how George W. Bush explained his loss in New Hampshire. “I kind of smiled my way through the early primaries and got defined,” Bush said in last week’s debate in South Carolina. “I’m not going to let it happen again.”

Like his father, Bush was lapsing into consultant-speak. He was alluding to the maxim, evidently drilled into him by his handlers, that a candidate mustn’t let his opponents define him unfavorably. For Bush, however, the peril is broader. His strategy for beating Al Gore was to avoid being defined at all. Bush was supposed to be all things to all people—a “compassionate conservative” untouched by old Republican controversies. In South Carolina, he lost that virginity. He defined himself as the man who would save the GOP from the moderate views and supporters of John McCain. Bush won the primary he had to win by surrendering the innocence he had to preserve.

The more closely you examine Bush’s parade of campaign themes, the more you realize that their collective purpose has been to avoid defining him. What is a “compassionate conservative”? What is “prosperity with a purpose”? What is the agenda of a “uniter”? Bush essentially admits these phrases meant nothing: “I kind of smiled my way through the early primaries and got defined.”

After losing New Hampshire, Bush repackaged himself as a “reformer with results.” Pundits now proclaim this slogan the stroke of genius that revolutionized his campaign. But what does “reform” mean? Whatever Bush has done. His education policies are “education reform.” His tort policies are “tort reform.” His juvenile justice policies are “juvenile justice reform.” And what does “results” mean? Whatever happened after Bush’s policy was enacted. If something good happened, Bush calls it a “result.” And if he can’t find anything good yet—as in the case of his health insurance “reforms”—he says the “result” is that the policy became “Texas law.” The result is the reform, and the reform is whatever is in Bush’s record. Voilà : a reformer with a record of results.

Maybe Bush could have won South Carolina with this slogan alone—or by calling McCain a hypocrite on campaign reform—thereby keeping Bush’s slate blank for the general election. We’ll never know, because Bush decided not to take the chance. He defined himself—this time for real—by defining McCain. Bush went to Bob Jones University—which bans interracial dating—and promised to “defend our conservative philosophy” against Republicans who, “like my chief rival in this state,” opposed “meaningful tax cuts.” In the debate, Bush said he had refused to meet with a gay Republican group because “they had made a commitment to John McCain.” (When McCain said such a commitment was news to him, Bush persisted: “I thought they raised money for you.”) Ralph Reed, Haley Barbour, and other Bush spokesmen questioned McCain’s conservatism on moral issues and cigarette taxes. And Bush rallied conservatives to the polls by warning them that Democrats and independents were flooding the Republican primary to vote for McCain.

In short, Bush defined himself as everything McCain isn’t. Bush is not the candidate who shunned Bob Jones. He’s not the one who’d put debt reduction before tax cuts. He’s not the one who’s soft on abortion and gay rights. He’s not the one who would fine tobacco companies and accept the consequent cigarette price hike. And he’s not the candidate of independents and crossover Democrats. In a Republican primary in a conservative state, these definitions served Bush well. But in a national general election, they’ll kill him.

Most pundits think the worst thing McCain can do to Bush now is to sully his character by accusing him of “character assassination.” But few voters draw lasting conclusions from charges of negative campaigning, and those who do often respect the attacker more for showing he’s a “fighter.” The greater danger is that McCain will further define the race in ideological terms, which tend to stick and would help Democrats paint Bush as a right-winger in the fall.

In his South Carolina concession speech, McCain suggested that Bush’s supporters “would shut the doors to our party.” On the Sunday talk shows and in print interviews, McCain and his aides repeatedly cited exit polls indicating that McCain won narrowly among less religious voters but that Bush won overwhelmingly among Christian conservatives. McCain’s political director attributed Bush’s victory to “Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell” and questioned whether Bush could “run as a Dixiecrat in Michigan” and other moderate states. In Michigan, McCain is telling voters that he’s running against Republicans who want to be the “party of the special interests,” and he’s accusing Bush of putting tax cuts for the rich before Medicare and Social Security.

Two developments in Michigan pose particular trouble for Bush. One is his escalating war against Democratic voters. Bush and his chief backer in Michigan, Gov. John Engler, are accusing McCain of “fraternizing” with Democrats who want to “hijack” the GOP. It’s hard for Bush to carry on this skirmish without defining himself as the Republican no Democrat should support. The other problem is the Bob Jones issue. The media and some McCain supporters are now emphasizing anti-Catholic quotes from the university’s president, putting Bush at odds with Catholic voters in Michigan and other Midwestern and Northeastern states. On Meet the Press, McCain said Bush should have repudiated those comments “about the pope and other religious leaders.”

McCain may not defeat Bush in Michigan or in the states that follow. But if by mid-March he has forced Bush to define himself as the candidate of Bob Jones, the tobacco industry, tax cuts for the rich, and a Republican Party cleansed of independents and Democrats, he will have gone a long way toward defeating Bush in November.