Ballot Box

Garry Wills Gets It Wrong

An op-ed piece by Garry Wills in today’s New York Times contends that despite the news from New Hampshire, Bill Bradley continues to pose a greater threat to Al Gore than John McCain does to George W. Bush. Wills doubts that either challenger can win, but he thinks Bradley will play the “spoiler” for his party’s likely nominee while McCain won’t for his. As is often the case with Wills, the argument is both provocative and riddled with holes. Here are three of the obvious fallacies. 

First fallacy: that all non-McCain Republican support ultimately belongs to Bush. “If the ludicrous candidates were removed from the Republican side, almost all their combined vote–20 percent–would have gone to Mr. Bush, giving him 50 percent of the total,” he writes. “The right wing of the party, which splintered its vote among the also-rans, has its doubts about Mr. Bush, but it abominates Mr. McCain.”

On what basis does Wills assume that Bush and not McCain would have been the second choice of people who voted for Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer in New Hampshire? I think he may be confusing the conservative party establishment–Mitch McConnell and Tom DeLay–with the conservative anti-establishment that the ludicrous candidates represent. You might assume that because Bush is running to the right of McCain on the issue of taxes, he is closer in ideological terms to the three guys from the far right. But to many followers of Keyes, Forbes, and Bauer, there is essentially no difference between Bush and McCain on issues they care about. When it comes to attitude, however, McCain is much closer to the fringe fellows. Like them, he speaks to a desire to shake up the political status quo. Bush is the political status quo. Moreover, Forbes and Bauer have been running mostly against Bush and seem to have developed a genuine dislike for him. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Bauer, who announces his withdrawal tomorrow, might come around to endorsing McCain.

Second fallacy: that the press is carrying water for Bradley. Writes Wills, “Mr. Bradley is the ‘insurgent’ of the fashionable fat cats–who include, of course, his cheerleaders in the press.” You might have made a good case that the press was boosting Bradley’s chance as recently as a month ago. But in recent weeks, Bradley’s obvious disdain for the press and the behind-the-curve style of his campaign have taken a toll. Reporters no longer love or even like him much. If you doubt this, compare these two treatments of Bradley in Time: a reverential cover story pegged to Bradley’s announcement tour in September and last week’s early obituary titled “A Sense of Where You’re Not.” If you want to see journalistic cheerleading these days, you have to ride the McCain bus.

Third fallacy: that Bradley is better positioned than McCain because of money. “[Bradley] is the champion of campaign finance reform who has outspent Mr. Gore, and he can continue to dog Mr. Gore only because his coffers are full of the very money he calls unclean,” Wills writes. It’s certainly the case that Bradley harms Gore by forcing him to deplete resources that could otherwise be used for the general election. But the same is true on the Republican side, where the combined resources of McCain and his useful idiot Steve Forbes actually exceed those of the Texas governor. And unlike Bradley, Forbes is not bound by state-by-state spending limits: He can do the front-runner as much damage with negative ads as amuses him. Moreover, money is now pouring into to McCain’s coffers as a result of his New Hampshire victory.

The fallacious Garry Wills notwithstanding, I would argue that while Bradley has been mostly beneficial to Gore, McCain will be mainly harmful to Bush. Bradley’s challenge has forced Gore to get his act together; it turned his fat and lazy campaign into a fighting machine. And by running to Gore’s left, Bradley has actually helped position the vice president toward the center, where he’ll want to be for the November election. There are exceptions to this, namely gays in the military, but it’s true as a general rule. On the GOP side, meanwhile, McCain is doing Bush much less good. At least so far, the contest seems to be exposing Bush’s weaknesses as a campaigner rather than drawing out his buried strengths. And by running to the center himself, McCain has prompted Bush to run to his right. As he attempts to run to McCain’s right in South Carolina, Bush is likely to say things–about the Confederate flag, abortion, and taxes–that can and will be used against him by the Democratic nominee.