Frame Game

The Bush Bubble

Every four years, as the primary returns trickle in from New Hampshire, presidential candidates trot onstage with metaphors designed to spin the results. Al Gore’s metaphor, “touchdown,” implies that a win is a win. Bill Bradley’s, “turnaround,” implies that the real winner is the guy who lost more narrowly than expected. George W. Bush’s, “bump in the road,” implies that Bush’s lopsided loss to John McCain is a momentary, inconsequential distraction. “New Hampshire has long been known as a bump in the road for front-runners,” Bush joked last night. “The road to the Republican nomination and the White House is a long road. Mine will go through all 50 states.” Translation: Bush has the money, the organization, the endorsements, and the lead in polls throughout the country. Resistance is futile.

Inevitability is a self-fulfilling spin. As long as people believe it, it’s true. But what if they don’t? What if McCain’s win in New Hampshire shatters the prevailing certainty that Bush will be the nominee—or would be more electable? What arguments can Bush fall back on? This is the question New Hampshire has exposed. Why do so many people support Bush? Because they think he’s electable, because Republican leaders support him, and because Republican donors have united behind him. In short, people support him because other people support him. This is what stock market analysts call a speculative bubble. Prick the confidence and the bubble bursts.

Think of Bush as an Internet company. What are his expenses so far? Reportedly $35 million. And what are his earnings? An 11-point win in Iowa and an 18-point defeat in New Hampshire. So why do people keep buying his stock? Because it keeps going up, as measured by polls and campaign-finance reports. I’m buying stock in Bush because you’re buying it. If you begin to doubt that Bush is the most electable candidate, you might stop giving him money and telling pollsters you plan to vote for him. If you and others stop giving him money, then maybe his nomination isn’t inevitable. And if you and others stop telling pollsters you plan to vote for him, then maybe he isn’t so electable. So then maybe I should stop giving him money and telling pollsters I plan to vote for him. And so on.

Bush thinks he can stop his slide by marshaling his assets, arguments, and achievements. But the more you examine these assets, arguments, and achievements, the more you realize that they all rest on the same circular logic. How did Bush become the front-runner? By raising lots of money. And why did donors give him that money? Because they thought he could win. Maybe they had good reasons to think so. But the point is, the rest of us don’t know what those reasons were. All we know is that they gave him the money. We’re supposed to favor him because people with money favor him.

How did Bush solidify his domination of the field? By securing endorsements from scores of Republican governors and members of Congress. And why did those officials endorse him? Because they think he’s the most electable Republican. As Bush’s latest endorser, Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., put it in a press release Monday, Bush is “the Republican who can win the nomination and go on to win the general election.” Castle’s endorsement is supposed to persuade Republicans in Delaware to vote for Bush. In other words, you’re supposed to support Bush because politicians support him, because you’re supposed to support him.

Doesn’t Bush have any other arguments why you should support him? Yes, he does. He says he’s a true conservative, unlike McCain. But how do we know this? Critics in Texas say Bush raised sales taxes there after promising not to, and the Manchester Union Leader argued in detail that Bush’s record contradicts his claim to be a conservative. When asked about these critiques on Fox News Sunday, Bush replied, “I’m a conservative. I got elected governor in a conservative state.” A day later, Bush dismissed the tax complaint by observing, “I’ve done a good job as governor of Texas. It’s been confirmed by the people of my state overwhelmingly. … It’s the most Republican big state.” In other words, people should vote for Bush because he’s conservative, and the evidence that he’s conservative is that people have voted for him.

Bush also says you should vote for him because he’s the candidate best equipped to manage the presidency. But what about his inexperience in office (five years), Washington (zero), and foreign policy (zero)? McCain implicitly raised those questions in a TV ad in New Hampshire. When asked about these doubts on Face the Nation, Bush replied, “A lot of United States senators are asking the same question. Republican senators saying, ‘Which one of the two, Sen. McCain or Gov. Bush, should we endorse? Who should we help, based upon their leadership skills?’ And by far, the overwhelming majority of United States senators, who are Republicans, are supporting me.” In short, you should vote for Bush because he has the leadership skills to be president, which must be true because so many senators have endorsed him, which they have done because they think you’ll vote for him.

Where did the whole Bush juggernaut—the money, the endorsements, the lead in the polls—begin? With his name. So Bush brought his father onstage for a rally in New Hampshire. “This boy, this son of ours is not going to let you down,” the former president promised. But why should the résumé of the father be visited on the son? On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer asked Gov. Bush, “Your dad used to say he was the foreign policy president. That was his expertise. What would you say is your area of expertise?” Bush replied, “Uniting people and setting an agenda that’s hopeful and optimistic, bringing people together to achieve that agenda. … John [McCain] is a good man, but I believe when it’s all said and done the people of this party are going to say, ‘Gov. Bush can unite us.’ ” On Fox News Sunday, Bush argued, “One of the big differences in this campaign [is] that I can unite our party. I’ve got the capacity to bring people together so we can win the White House.” To sum up: You should all vote for Bush because he’s got expertise. His expertise is that he’s a uniter. And the evidence that he’s a uniter is that you’re all going to vote for him.

Here’s what George W. Bush has accomplished: He won the governorship of a big state without Republican opposition in a year in which every palatable Republican nominee was swept into office. He administered that institutionally weak office during a national boom that poured surpluses into state treasuries and enabled governors and legislators to cut taxes without cutting spending. He accumulated enough time in office to become a plausible presidential candidate just as the country’s Democratic president was discrediting his heir apparent with yet another scandal, and just as Republican congressional leaders were discrediting themselves by reducing their agenda to the president’s impeachment, thereby clearing the Republican presidential field for Bush.

You were supposed to vote for Bush because everyone else was supposed to vote for him. In New Hampshire, they didn’t. Bush says it’s just a blip in the market, and you should keep holding his stock. But he’s already lost most of his lead in South Carolina. If he suffers another defeat there, people will begin to ask why they should vote for him even if he’s not inevitable or more electable than his rivals. McCain, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer have spent two years explaining why you should vote for them even if nobody else agrees with you. Bush ought to be able to answer the same question.