The real nominating conclave, of course, took place over a year ago. You imagine a couple of dozen middle-aged white men in suits gathered around a conference table in a dark-paneled room—possibly even in Philadelphia, home of the late E. Digby Baltzell, who chronicled the Protestant Establishment and coined the term WASP. Let’s even put a grandfather clock ticking self-confidently against one wall.
But it wasn’t the Protestant Establishment, exactly, and it certainly wasn’t the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, with its sweaty ideologues and overexcitable religiosos. It was something between the two, more like a 1950s-style business establishment. Dynastic within reason and conservative up to a point, but passionate only in its belief that moderation in the pursuit of election is no vice. The agenda was simple and businesslike: Bring in new management. Focus on the bottom line. Make sure that the GOP doesn’t blow it this time through zealotry, as in 1992, or sentiment, as in 1996.
Someone said: “What about George’s boy—the older one, I mean. The one we’ve got running Texas. He’s totally reliable—not too bright, no strong views—and he’s a great pol. They love him down there.” The vote was unanimous, and the word went forth. And suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, George W. was the overwhelming front-runner for the Republican nomination. Party leaders, business leaders, religious leaders all swore their allegiance to a man who, until five seconds before, many of them knew only as the man who got to fire John Sununu as George the Elder’s White House chief of staff.
It was an impressive display of power for a conservative subgroup that had been thought of as a spent force. At first, though, it seemed like a miscalculation. He was too dumb, too callow, too inexperienced. But guess what? These guys knew what they were doing.
George W. wears well. He’s not a total bozo. His scalawag side and his sincere side are both appealing, both apparently genuine, and the flavors mix superbly, each making the other digestible. His comically aristocratic answer to doubts about his grasp of the issues—in effect, “I have people for that sort of thing”—comes off as amiable anti-intellectual populism. His preppy disdain for vulgar ideological passions and grubby policy details is well-suited to a contented people in a prosperous time. “Compassionate conservatism” turns out not to be just a cynical salesman’s oxymoron. This patrician offer of vague, high-minded stewardship is well-meaning and highly tempting. Its emptiness may have to be proved in practice.
Al Gore, as it happens, literally was chosen by a Democratic variant of the process we imagine choosing Bush. In 1988, a group of new-money millionaires convened under the name IMPAC ‘88 and anointed young Al as the man to bring the party back to moderation and good common sense. In that case, the nominating committee was overruled—for a while.
Bush’s nominating committee got to choose his running mate too. You can almost define this group as those who think it’s a damned shame the country can’t be run by solid fellows like Dick Cheney. Living in a cocoon of such people, both Bush and Cheney himself have the mistaken impression that this is a widely held view. Cheney was almost deluded enough to run for president himself four years ago. Bush was deluded enough to think that no one would take seriously all Cheney’s far-right votes as a Wyoming congressman in the ancient 1980s. After all, Cheney didn’t take them seriously.
Gore’s efforts to nail Cheney as a right-wing ideologue are fair enough. In politics, you are who you pretend to be. But Cheney’s real record is that of an apparatchik. He always holds the views appropriate to the time and place. Has he ever said anything brave, or controversial, or even noteworthy? Now he’s a compassionate conservative. You bet.
Bush’s own impatience with ideology is more deeply rooted. He shares his father’s attitude that politics is a game, along with the preppy ethic that one should be serious about games and casual about life. The best thing about George W. is his non-neurotic attitude that he’s playing this game to win, but he won’t fall apart if he doesn’t. The worst thing about him is almost the same: Nothing is at stake except winning the game.
So at this week’s convention he is enforcing the absence of a party line with an iron fist. “Hard-edged conservatives” will be banned from speaking. All views are tolerated except for any view that some other view is wrong. For years Republicans have scored points off the Democrats for refusing to let an ardent right-to-lifer address the 1992 convention. Now they’re practically doing the same thing. The platform may say that abortion is the murder of an innocent child, but, hey, no big deal! Those good folks who favor the murder of innocent children are welcome inside the big tent. And anyone who has a word to say against people who favor child murder had better not try to say it here.
Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, chairman of the platform committee, does the TV rounds urging people not to take the platform seriously. It is merely a statement of core Republican principles, he insists bizarrely—nothing anybody is supposed to agree with, least of all their presidential candidate. Other Republican pols insist that George W. hasn’t even read the platform.
Now, that I believe.