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George W.'s Straw Party | The Nation

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George W.'s Straw Party

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George W.: Clinton With a Glint of Steel

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Bush flaunted his campaign confidence by investing little face time in Iowa and by starting his final pre-Ames swing barely forty-eight hours before the vote. The Texas governor had invested a total of eight days campaigning in Iowa since mid-June, compared with forty-two days by Alexander and thirty-seven by Forbes. Lamar Alexander did so many face-to-face events, he probably met each Iowan twice. For his Ames campaign, Bush staged a mere half-dozen events in only three counties. Who needs retail when your cash buys wholesale activist networks?

In organizing for the event, Bush brought in scores of Republican volunteers, activists and operatives from the Dakotas, Missouri, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin. "The Bush presidential campaign is the best-organized I've ever seen at this point in the process," said Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, who headed a brigade of thirty-five Bush volunteers from his state. Ames is supposed to test precisely that strength of ground-level campaign organizations. And what a test Bush had. His opening Iowa rally scheduled for a Davenport park was threatened by a rainstorm. On two hours' notice, the rally site was shifted to an indoor banquet room ten miles away, and the campaign staff was still able to produce an enthusiastic crowd of 500--a monster turnout in these parts, covered amply by a medium-sized media army.

But it's more than Bush just asserting leadership over the party. He's brazenly attempting to recast the entire public image and outreach of the GOP. Watching Bush push his message on the face-to-face level, there is none of the gruffness or grinchy-ness of Bob Dole, the meanhearted divisiveness of Newt or even the chilly, patrician aloofness of his father. The bad news for Democrats is that whatever they might think of his policies, George W. Bush's style is good--very, very good. By his own words, his campaign is one that "appeals to our better angels, not our darker impulses."

"I've learned you cannot lead by dividing people or pitting them against one another. I'm a uniter, not a divider," Bush told the Davenport crowd, which, acutely aware of the political price paid by Republican bullies in the past few years, yelped and hollered its approval.

If Bill Clinton screwed the Republicans (and liberal Democrats as well) by stealing much of the GOP agenda, then you might say it's payback time. Bush has in turn neatly appropriated much of Clinton's style and--give or take a nuance or two--much of his platform for governing. You could close your eyes during the Iowa stump speeches of Bush and half-convince yourself that you were at a 1992 Clinton rally. The one major difference is that while Clinton obsessively vowed to enforce the death penalty during his '92 run, Bush, who has signed 100 death warrants, never bothers to bring up the issue.

"This country is hungry for a new style of campaign. Positive. Hopeful. Inclusive. A campaign based on ideas and a positive agenda," Bush would say to repeated applause during his Iowa swing. "A campaign that attracts new faces and new voices. A campaign that unites all Americans toward a better tomorrow."

How about these Clintonesque chestnuts from the lips of the Texas Governor: "We must have prosperity with a purpose. So no one is left out. So no one is left behind.... We must close the gap at home.... We'll be prosperous if we do the right things as a nation." You almost expect Bush to be biting his lip.

Speech after speech and there's no attack, no criticism--in fact, there's not even a mention of the other GOP candidates. And most salient, while every other Republican candidate still can't refrain from Bill and Hillary potshots, Bush never speaks their names. It's enough for him to look stern for a moment, pause and then to thunderous applause promise, "When you elect me, I will swear to uphold the dignity and honor of the office to which I was elected."

While Bush might not have all the fluidity and ease that Clinton does when speaking before large crowds, Bush's one-on-one capacity seems lifted from the Primary Colors script. After that Davenport event, Bush dismounted the podium and--by my watch--spent a full ninety-five minutes patiently signing each and every autograph request, more than 200 of them. Each supplicant was hugged, looked at right in the eyes and given some sort of personalized greeting.

The next morning Bush mingled just as easily with an overflow crowd of Latino supporters at one of Davenport's few Mexican restaurants and proudly strutted his more than adequate Spanish. The following day at the Ames straw poll he fielded a special contingent of yellow-shirted Latino volunteers under a se habla español sign and then shook up his mostly white-bread crowd of supporters when he started dancing along with a San Antonio-based Tejano band he had flown in for the day. None of this is to deny that the "compassionate conservative" planks of the Bush platform are fundamentally the latter. But in a political process in which image is supreme, the concerted push to remake wholesale the image of the GOP in one short presidential campaign is impressive. After all, what if not Clinton's own attractive and "compassionate" image allowed him, without resistance, to drag his own party into adopting so many conservative positions? Democratic campaign adviser William Bradley sums up the threat posed to Democrats by Bush: "Anyone who underestimates George W.'s appeal is kidding themselves. He's like Bill Clinton with a glint of steel."

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