George W. Bush is running against an administration that is presiding over the best economy ever. He is one of the least experienced politicians ever nominated for president, and he represents a party that has been humiliated in the national policy wars of the past six years. Yet somehow, in his speech at the Republican convention Thursday night, Bush managed to describe these conditions so persuasively that he now leads Al Gore by 11 percentage points in a post-convention NBC poll. How did Bush do it?
1. Recast ends as means. Every administration presides over some things that go well and some that don’t. In Gore’s case, the ratio of good to bad is exceptionally high. To adjust the ratio in his favor, Bush defined everything that was accomplished in the last eight years as raw material given to Gore. By subtraction, this reduced Gore’s “record”—what Gore has done with the raw material—to everything that wasn’t accomplished. Bush declared, “America has a strong economy and a surplus. We have the public resources … to strengthen Social Security and repair Medicare. But this administration, during eight years of increasing need, did nothing.” He added that “prosperity can be a tool in our hands used to build and better our country” and that “the Clinton-Gore administration has coasted through prosperity.” Notice the metaphors. Whereas Gore and President Clinton have portrayed the economy and the surplus as ends (gardens “grown” by wise policies), Bush portrayed them as means (a resource, a tool, a downhill road). By switching metaphors, Bush changed the question from what Gore has done for the economy to what Gore has done with it.
2. Discount solved problems. When the country’s glass is half full, the challenger points out that it’s half empty. When the country’s glass is completely full, the challenger points out that the next glass is half empty. This year, the economic glass is full, but the moral glass isn’t. So Bush argued that baby boomers have “discovered that who we are is more important than what we have.” This is a bit like discovering after dinner that reading a book is more important than eating dessert. The emergence of your intellectual appetite presumes that your physical appetite has been satisfied. By couching our transfer of attention from economics to morals as a “discovery,” Bush camouflaged this satisfaction.
3. Erase inconvenient history. Gore has spent eight years fighting Republicans in Congress and preparing to run for president based on the story of that fight. But last night, Bush told a different story: In Texas, “We improved our schools dramatically. … We moved people from welfare to work. We strengthened our juvenile justice laws. Our budgets have been balanced with surpluses. And we cut taxes.” What about the story of Clinton and Gore and Newt Gingrich? Bush blew it off: “I don’t have a lot of things that come with Washington. I don’t have enemies to fight. I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years.” No stake? That’s a flat-out renunciation of the congressional GOP—and an audacious end run around Gore’s election strategy.
4. Repackage inexperience. Critics have called Bush unschooled in federal policy debates. Last night, he replied that because he’s an outsider, he can “change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect.” Doubters have said Bush hasn’t prepared himself for the presidency. Last night, he answered proudly, “For me, gaining this office is not the ambition of a lifetime.” He implied that his innocence could wash away the nation’s sins and cynicism: “After all of the shouting and all of the scandal, after all the bitterness and broken faith, we can begin again.” He even wiped clean the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: “Now is the time not to defend outdated treaties but to defend the American people.”
5. Generalize moral failure. As Bush described it, Clinton’s trysts with Monica Lewinsky didn’t just disgust and embarrass the country; they corrupted public education and national defense. “This administration did not teach our children, it disillusioned them,” Bush asserted. And while “America’s armed forces need better equipment, better training, and better pay,” he added, they also desperately lack “a commander in chief who earns their respect.” Conversely, Bush offered to restore the nation’s moral health simply by fulfilling his pledge “to uphold the honor and dignity” of the presidency.
6. Shift the association of risk. Clinton and Gore have trained swing voters to associate “security” with government programs, in contrast to “risky schemes” such as tax cuts and Social Security privatization. Bush reversed this equation. Money diverted from Social Security to individual retirement accounts will be in “sound, responsible investments,” he argued. “It’s just not a program, it’s your property. Now is the time to give American workers security and independence that no politician can ever take away.” While Gore has observed that people can lose their savings in the stock market, Bush pointed out that this risk is relative, since people can also lose their savings in a government trust fund raided by politicians for other purposes.
7. Break the liberal fallacy. As the uproar over Dick Cheney’s voting record illustrates, liberal politicians and journalists equate concern about a problem with willingness to fund federal programs that purport to alleviate that problem. In his speech, Bush rejected this assumption: “The alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference. It is to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity” through targeted tax credits and grants to private social service agencies. Rather than administer aid directly, Bush argued, “Government can take the side of these groups, helping the helper, encouraging the inspired.”
8. Redefine cultural issues. Gore wants to focus attention on traditional moral issues such as abortion, which can be reduced to yes/no debates to scare swing voters. In his speech, Bush responded in two ways. First, he diluted the familiar issues from yes/no debates to differences of degree. Rather than admit he favors outlawing nearly all abortions, Bush said he supports parental notification laws and a ban on partial-birth abortions. And rather than insist on abstinence-only sex education, he called for “elevating character and abstinence from afterthoughts to urgent goals.” Second, rather than mute his religious faith, he advertised it as a source of compassion, an inspiration “not to judge our neighbors but to love them.”
Thanks to these tricks, Bush has bumped up his lead to double digits. But two weeks from now, Gore gets his turn at the wheel—and if the vice president is half as good at spinning as the Texas governor says he is, Bush will need all the head start he can get.