Somewhere outside of Decatur, Ga., in the bathroom of a Krispy Kreme, Newt Gingrich is sobbing uncontrollably. George W. Bush vows to spend (!) $5 billion (!!) on literacy (!!!)? Al Gore should declare victory and go home. Is that what running for national office as a Republican has come to? Co-opting the Democrats’ big government, budget-busting agenda? And epoxying yourself to a motherhood-type issue, one that no one could possibly oppose? Way to make the hard choices, Dub.
Of course, that’s not me talking. I would never been that snarky and cynical. That’s what his enemies will say (and, privately, maybe even some of his friends). Illiteracy is absolutely a serious issue, and if he can get more kids to read, we’ll all be better for it. But when I saw the story of Bush’s proposal on the front page of today’s Times, I thought to myself, That’s it; the Democrats are going to win back the House, and Gore is in much better shape than we think. If this turns into an election about education and other so-called “soft” issues, including Social Security and health care, the Repubs are dead. Overwhelmingly, the public believes this is D rather than R territory; add in gun control, which is likely to be a major sticking point in the fall thanks to that sweet-natured Wayne LaPierre, and you can imagine a scenario in which Bush is constantly on the balls of his feet, never off, with the end result being that no Texan ever gets to utter the words “Governor Rick Perry.”
That possibility—Bush losing—seemed fantastical only a couple of months ago, and yet we all talk about it here (c’mon, admit it; even you, Paul) with alarming regularity. The reason, I’d submit, is that you can’t really run as an outsider in American politics and win. Outsider is code for “inexperienced as a campaigner, with inexperienced campaign staffers leading the charge.” You know who ran as an outsider? Ross Perot. John McCain. Look where it got them. Bush loves to talk about how his area code is 512, not 202. Well, he’s paying for it. The mistakes he’s made—Bob Jones, not taking McCain seriously, blowing off New Hampshire till the last minute, his passive-aggressive approach to the press—can all be chalked up to having never done this before and to not having people who have done it guide him through the process. Which is fine; there’s no law against learning by doing, and if Bush really wants to change the culture of Washington, it would be hypocritical at best and incredibly dumb at worst to put his campaign in the hands of the Charlie Blacks and Bob Teeters of the world, who are the culture of Washington. Still, I can’t help but wonder what might have been if he’d put as much energy into planning his campaign as he put into funding it. As a resident of Texas, and as someone who genuinely likes Bush personally, I’m just plain disappointed in how things have gone. And I don’t blame the handlers. I blame the guy who hired them.