For a veteran of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, watching the 2000 edition of George W. Bush is like watching a cheesy cable-movie version of a great novel. The basics are there, but it’s a pale imitation of the real thing. From the moment he secured the nomination, in a ruthless, vicious, amoral butchering of John McCain straight out of the Book of Atwater, George W. Bush has tried to reinvent himself in the image of the man he most despises: Bill Clinton. It must gall Bush to no end; it must tear at his soul and torment his mind to know that his best shot at replacing the man who trounced his father lies in copying the very tactics and techniques of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign.
This is not a case of grudging admiration, not at all like the scene in “Patton” in which George C. Scott stands in the desert and shouts at Rommel’s tanks, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” No, while Bush clearly read Clinton’s book (or had someone read it to him), he would never call Clinton “magnificent,” nor would he acknowledge the debt he owes Clinton. How does he flatter Clinton? Let me count the ways.
Most fundamentally, Clinton’s ads and allies ceaselessly proclaimed him to be “a different kind of Democrat” back in 1992. Today, we hear Bush supporters endlessly extolling him as “a different kind of Republican.”
Back in 1992, Clinton decried the excessive partisanship in Washington, calling for “an end to the brain-dead politics of both parties in Washington.” In June, Bush outlined his governing philosophy (such as it is), saying, “There is too much argument in Washington and not enough discussion. Too much polling and not enough decision-making. Too much needless division, not enough shared accomplishment. Not enough final acts and resolutions, and lasting achievements.” Kind of wordy, but it’s the same thought.
Clinton never missed a chance to pose with police officers or meet with businessmen–just to prove he was not the old soft-headed kind of Democrat. Bush never misses a chance to take a photo with a minority child, a woman, or a senior citizen–just to prove that he is not the old hard-hearted kind of Republican.
Clinton strolled back to the press section of our campaign plane, endlessly jawing with reporters, charming them, inquiring about their families, and debating arcane aspects of public policy with the wonkier reporters. Bush does the same thing, although he substitutes frat-boy nicknames and cheek-pinching for serious policy discussions.
Perhaps haunted by his efforts to avoid serving in Vietnam, Clinton went out of his way to pay tribute to veterans, both rhetorically and with substantive promises to improve veterans’ benefits. George W. is also haunted by reports that he was AWOL from the National Guard for an entire year, while the sons of men who were not powerful politicians were dying in Vietnam. So Bush, who wants to privatize everything from Social Security to Medicare, promises more government benefits to veterans.
Clinton called for “reinventing government”; Bush calls for “getting results from government.” Clinton executed Ricky Ray Rector in the middle of the campaign; Bush executes so many Texans they need an electric bench instead of a chair. Clinton called for higher standards, more testing, and greater accountability in our schools; ditto for W.
Bush himself is consumed with contempt for Bill Clinton. The Bush Website features a countdown of the days, hours, minutes–even seconds–left in the Clinton Presidency. (Would it be crass to note the Clinton Presidency will be precisely twice as long as the last Bush Presidency?) So, as you can imagine, the Bush campaign is aghast and dismissive of the notion that they’re copying Clinton. “Bill Clinton is not the first candidate to run to the center,” says Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. “There are no patents or copyrights on good ideas. Bill Clinton wasn’t the first to run on good ideas targeted to swing voters, and George W. Bush won’t be the last.”
Besides, stress the Bushies, theirs is a positive campaign (which would come as news to John McCain, the man they painted as pro-breast cancer, mentally unstable, and unpatriotic) while they believe Clinton ’92 was negative. “These are two totally different candidates,” argues Fleischer. “Bush is running an upbeat, positive campaign, while Clinton ran an essentially negative campaign that convinced people to change and vote out President Bush.”
I haven’t heard that kind of spin since–well, I hate to say it–I was spinning away for the Clinton ’92 campaign. Good Lord, they’re like us even in how they deny being like us!
Bush’s campaign operation is in many ways a carbon copy of Clinton’s. At the center stands Karl Rove, doing his best imitation of James Carville. Communications director Karen Hughes and chief spokesman Fleischer are the GOP’s version of Dee Dee Myers and George Stephanopolous. All of them operate out of Austin, not Washington. And none of them can ever be accused of disloyalty. I admire that. I also admire their talent. Together with my old Democratic running buddy, ad man Mark McKinnon (who used to work with Clinton ’92 ad guru Mandy Grunwald), they have as good a collection of imagemakers as we’ve ever seen.
But even more striking than the similarities between the campaigns, is this difference: Whereas Clinton had substance aplenty to back up his stylistic breaks with the old Democratic orthodoxy, Bush is shallower than a hoofprint on granite. When you look past the style to the substance of the “Different Kind of Republican/Reformer With Results/Compassionate Conservative/Prosperity With a Purpose” platitudes, there’s no there there. They oughta hold the convention in Oakland.
Why the utter lack of substance? The Bush campaign–especially W. himself–operates under Atwater’s Law. The late Lee Atwater was famous for saying of politics, “It’s all bullshit.” And back when I was living in Austin, someone who’s now a major player in Team Bush told me that the young master embraced that view as well. At the time, I thought it was an overstatement. Surely, I ventured, Bush cared about making sure every young person could read, since he talked about it in every speech. No, this insider said, that’s Laura’s passion; Bush just repeats it. He thinks it’s all bullshit.
And while the Clinton ’92 campaign was a longshot crusade, taking on a President who’d been at 91 percent in the polls, Bush 2000 displays the kind of polished cynicism and eager ruthlessness that Atwater would have been proud of. Small wonder. Both W. and Rove were Atwater protgs.
There’s a part of me–the part that still wants to like Bush as a guy–that wants him to copy Clinton even more. I want him to look at how Clinton stood up to organized labor on trade, and find the courage to stand up to corporate interests–even on something as easy as raising the minimum wage. I want Bush to look at how Clinton broke with liberals on welfare reform and the death penalty, and summon the guts to take on the NRA. I want Bush to look at how Clinton picked a fight with the Rev. Jesse Jackson over Jackson’s offering a podium to Sister Souljah, and find the cojones to pick a fight with Rev. Jerry Falwell or Rev. Pat Robertson.
James Carville, my pal and former partner in the political consulting biz, cites another interesting difference between Clinton ’92 and Bush 2000: “They don’t put Bush out there,” Carville notes. “We put Clinton out everywhere: ’60 Minutes’ on Super Bowl Sunday. Every shopping mall and town hall meeting, every interview, every debate, everything. They hide Bush. I think they’re scared of him. I don’t think he’s dumb and I don’t think he’s a bad man, but there’s not much to him. I think they’re worried someone will ask him about some guy he executed and Bush won’t even know the name.”
Of course, hiding the candidate also speaks to a lack of substance–as well as a lack of confidence in the candidate. As Clinton’s handlers, we knew he was our greatest asset. His intellect, his empathy, his ability to connect and communicate were an overwhelming package. I suspect the Bushies realize that Bush is better as a concept than a reality. He’s the best first date in American politics, but he won’t wear well in a long-term relationship.
They’re right. But the problem is, running for President ain’t a one-night stand. It’s a long courtship, and before it’s through, voters insist on getting to know you in every conceivable setting–both your style and your substance. Which is why the Bush folks would do well to copy Clinton even more.