Ballot Box

Bill Clinton’s Successor

PHILADELPHIA–One of the most interesting passages in Bush’s home run of an acceptance speech tonight was his declaration, about two-thirds of the way through, that his background “may lack the polish of Washington. Then again, I don’t have a lot of things that come with Washington experience,” Bush said. “I don’t have enemies to fight. And I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years.”

This was a gutsy point bit to include, because it cuts both ways. On the negative side, it underscores the rap that Bush is pretty green. Lacking experience in Washington is, to at least some extent, a weakness. If Bush has no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years, it’s because he didn’t really give a hoot about politics until fairly recently.

But that passage also highlights two of Bush’s genuine assets, one valuable and the other potentially decisive in this year’s election. The valuable one is Bush’s ability to act as a conciliator, a trait he highlighted by having Texan Democrats, the mayor of El Paso and the widow of the former Democratic lieutenant governor of the Texas, Bob Bullock, testify on his behalf. Bush spoke of his relationship with Bullock in his own address as well. “He worked by my side, endorsed my re-election, and I know he is with me in spirit,” Bush said of Bullock. As the convention turned more personal, the most devastating contrast drawn may have been the one between the snarky, nasty Gore and Bush, a man so likable even Democrats can’t help but love him.

The potentially decisive strength is that having sat out the ideological struggles of the past several years, Bush is in a perfect position to modernize his party and help it adapt to the changed political landscape Bill Clinton leaves behind. Bush is nothing like Clinton as a human being and as a person, as Bush’s dad might say. He lacks Clinton’s intelligence, his ambition, his talents, and his cravings. But Bush is trying to play a role in his party identical to the one Clinton has played in his. And Bush shares an advantage in arriving on the national scene from the remove of a Southern statehouse, with a list of pragmatic gubernatorial accomplishments instead of a contentious congressional voting record. Bush in 2000, like Clinton in 1992, is at once a consensus figure warmly embraced by various wings of the party and someone with a clear idea of where he plans to take it. Just as Clinton exorcised the last vestiges of McGovernism in 1992, Bush aims to purge the ghost of Gingrich form the GOP. 

Bush had some harsh words for Clinton in his speech. But at other points, he seemed to be offering a kind of tribute and an olive branch to Clinton’s supporters. “Our current president embodied the potential of a generation,” Bush said, rather daringly. “So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose.”

One way to read this passage is as a shrewd way to slam the incumbent. By acknowledging Clinton’s promise and his skills, Bush lends credibility to his criticism of his ethics. But you can also read it as Bush’s effort to position himself as Clinton’s more legitimate successor. In his speech, Bush described himself as a member of Clinton’s same generation who is truer to its better instincts, someone who will “restore honor and dignity” without reversing the social and economic progress that has occurred on Clinton’s watch. “Women are now treated more equally. Racial progress has been steady, if still too slow. We are learning to protect the natural world around us,” Bush said. “We will continue this progress and not turn it back.”

Imagine those words coming from the mouth of Bob Dole. You can’t, because Dole offered himself in San Diego in 1996 as someone who could turn back the clock on Clintonism. Bush, by contrast, proposes to embrace and extend it. Bush is trying to co-opt the popular bits of the Democratic agenda in the way that Republicans accused Democrats of stealing their clothes in 1996. To position himself as Clinton’s legitimate successor also severs, in a useful way, the umbilical cord connecting W. to his father. The passage cited above suggests that you can vote for Bush in 2000 without thinking that voting against Bush in 1992 was necessarily a mistake. In other places, Bush tried to fuse Clinton’s mantle with Reagan’s and claim them both. “We are now the party of ideas and innovation,” he said. “The party of idealism and inclusion.”

There’s no denying that this was a brilliant political speech–by turns substantive, scathing, and surprising. Bush is not a great orator, or even a good one, but the text was pitched at a level of eloquence that he was able to carry off without sounding stilted or excessively rhetorical. Even the Gore-bashing was funny and somewhat fresh. Bush posited the vice president’s reaction to the attempt to put a man on the moon–“a risky rocket scheme” and to Edison’s electric light bulb–“a risky anti-candle scheme.”

The quality of the conclusion came as an enormous relief. Until the last hour of the last day, this year’s Republican convention was an insult to the intelligence and good taste of everyone watching it. Those who should be most insulted are conservative intellectuals, for whom the Bush team has sacrificed the notion of the GOP as a party of ideas, turning it instead into a party of syrupy sentimentality, flexible principles, and intellectual disengagement. Beyond the parade of washed-up celebrities, the blind mountain climber, the deaf former Miss America, and Bo Derek’s breathy tribute to Hispanic-Americans, the image I’ll take away from here is Republican delegates bouncing beach balls around the floor and ignoring the few substantive speakers on the program. Philadelphia Republicans are a throwback to the pre-Reagan party. They’re not ideologues, deep thinkers, or revolutionaries.

But if the dumbed-down display was at times appalling, it was also utterly successful in accomplishing what it intended, namely rebranding the GOP as the party of the center. Republicans have dabbled in the symbolism of inclusiveness at conventions in the past. What they haven’t done, however, is send a message of moderation so thoroughly, consistently, and convincingly. Willie Horton is ancient history now, impeachment barely a memory, Pat Robertson hardly a recognizable face. In Philadelphia, the spirit of brotherly love may have been saccharine, but it prevailed.