Teflon George

On the last day of campaigning before Super Tuesday, John McCain chose UCLA as the site of his final event in the most important media market of the primary season. He took easy questions from an audience of friendly students before launching into his memorized stump speech, which included his well-worn denunciation of the “iron triangle” of lobbyists, money, and legislation, as well as a new rant against Texas money. “There are some billionaires from Texas trying to hijack this election,” he roared, neck veins bulging. He was referring, of course, to the Wyly brothers’ independently financed TV ads attacking McCain: “Tell ‘em to take their dirty money back to Texas, where it belongs.” McCain kept referring to Texas as if it were still part of Mexico – this from a man who was seeking the job of president of all 50 states.

Meanwhile, as McCain was repeating his distinctly unpresidential sound bites about Texas money, the governor of Texas was halfway through a tour of the nearby Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. After the tour, George W. Bush addressed an invited audience of 200 supporters, including his most prominent show-business backers, producer Jerry Weintraub and former Warner Bros. president Terry Semel. Bush’s slow read of his bland prepared text – “I am pleased to be with friends of the Wiesenthal Center, people committed to the spread of justice and tolerance” – took all of five minutes. The only person who seemed to be paying real attention was a strangely polite heckler.

When Bush said, “We must teach our children that we are one nation, one people, all American,” a young man stood and said, “What about gay people? I’m sorry.” With the rest of the audience in stunned silence, Bush smiled and held up his hand as if to say, “Just wait. I’m getting to that,” but never stopped reading. A minute later, with the question still unaddressed, the heckler again asked, “What about gay people?” A minute away from the finish line, Bush ignored him, and the heckler gave up, apparently realizing much quicker than McCain did that trying to portray Bush as a villain just does not work.

Villains must be scary, a quality in short supply in Connecticut Yankee families like the Bushes. There is, shall we say, a simplicity about George W – which liberals wrongly interpret as stupidity. He is anything but threatening, especially in person. Most of his Wiesenthal Center audience was probably as in favor of gay rights as the heckler, but none of them needed reassurance that Bush was not a gay-basher at heart.

If Al Gore has learned anything from the Republican battle for the nomination, it should be that bullets bounce off Bush. What ever happened to the first controversy that Bush stumbled into last summer, the Governor, have you ever used cocaine? question? After a couple of weeks, the brouhaha just petered out without Bush’s ever uttering anything as memorable and credibility-shredding as Bill Clinton’s “I did not inhale.”

“Gore, as much as any presidential candidate since Nixon, would gamely run a campaign of insults if he thought he could win. But Bush’s insult writers have way too much material to work with.”

And consider the outcome of Bush’s most recent dip in hot water, after he stopped in at America’s last bastion of anti-Catholic bigotry. Just when it looks like Bush will never outrun the Bob Jones story, he gets absolution of sorts, over the phone, from no less than the cardinal archbishop of New York – and goes on to win a majority of the Catholic vote on Super Tuesday.

In the sprint to Super Tuesday, Gore echoed McCain’s complaints about the Wyly brothers’ ads and squeezed a line into his victory speech about “secretly funded special-interest attack ads.” Still, Gore all but begged Bush “to make this a contest of ideas and not insults.” Gore, as much as any presidential candidate since Nixon, has shown that he’s willing to do pretty much anything to get elected, and he’d gamely run a campaign of insults if he thought he could win. But Bush’s insult writers are too good and have way too much material to work with. “I will remind Al Gore,” Bush said in his victory speech, “that Americans do not want a White House where there is ‘no controlling legal authority.’ “

Gore wants to talk policy not just because he would lose an insult contest but because he would probably win a pure policy contest. Most voters agree with Gore that abortion should be legal, that tax cuts should be small, that the rest of the federal budget surplus should be used to shore up Social Security and Medicare, and that nothing is more important than education. Bush thinks he can hold his own with Gore in an education-policy debate, what with increasing test scores in Texas to point to and public support growing – especially in minority communities – for federally funded vouchers that would allow poor students the chance to attend private schools. Ask chief Bush-campaign strategist Karl Rove what he wants to run on in the general election, and he says, “Education all the time, 24-7.” That’s an especially good answer when you know you’ll lose a debate on every other important policy issue in the campaign.

The only way to get Gore off the policy talk is for Bush to continue to talk – if not 24-7, then at least 12-7 – about his crusade “to return exiled honor to the White House.” The “no controlling legal authority” line will probably get a permanent position in the Bush stump speech, as will the now long list of names of Clinton-Gore fund-raisers who have been indicted, convicted, or otherwise implicated in violations of campaign-finance laws. And this will invite the Gore campaign to make the only big mistake available to it in the next eight months: fighting fire with fire.

The modern campaign rule book says you must never let an attack go unanswered. Presidential campaigners who have not lived by this rule have died by it – Michael Dukakis, Bill Bradley. Gore, who has lived by this rule religiously, can be counted on to return Bush’s fire with attacks on Bush’s own fund-raising practices and Bush’s opposition to McCain-style campaign-finance reform. In fact, the first Gore press release issued after McCain dropped out of the race was about “the millions of dollars of soft money spent in the Republican campaign by Bush’s Texas friends.” Nothing should make the Bush campaign happier. The more mud Gore throws back at Bush (which Bush has already shown is very unlikely to stick), the more sound bites Gore will be producing that are not about Medicare, Social Security, tax cuts, the economy, and education – the very issues that can win the election for him.

Teflon George