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George W.'s Straw Party | The Nation

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George W.'s Straw Party

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Ames, Iowa

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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.

Texas Governor George W. Bush came out of his handy victory in the GOP Presidential Straw Poll crowing that he "was now on the road to the nomination" and that the conventionlike balloting was a "festival of democracy." He's dead right on the first count. But as to the second--well, the Ames poll had about as much to do with democracy as Duffy Lyon's sculpture of the Last Supper carved in butter over at the Iowa State Fair did with Leonardo's original.

The Ames poll was modern politics at its worst. Twenty-five thousand predominantly white electors were bused in and then lured by free barbecues, T-shirts and concerts into casting an unofficial "vote" for whatever candidate paid their $25-a-head entrance fee.

A farce? Certainly. But at the same time an accurate, and markedly less hypocritical, microcosm of the official electoral process. Both are essentially about money. George W. Bush spent upward of a cool million to win his 31 percent. Steve Forbes spent twice as much to take second with 20 percent. Even the lesser candidates, like Christian-right leader Gary Bauer (who finished fourth with 9 percent) spent more than a quarter-million dollars on the event. Bauer leased fifteen golf carts just to whisk his supporters from his barbecue and gospel tent to the voting booths a few hundred yards up the hill.

Contrary to the official media consensus, this poll wasn't really about winnowing from year 2000 competition such obvious losers as Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle (though it succeeded in the former case). For there is no such competition. After the humiliating defeat of the Gingrich leadership in the '98 Congressional vote, the Republican Party elite, led by frightened governors and backed by deep-pocket corporate contributors, decided to jerk the party back into the moderate mainstream.

With abnormally early blanket endorsement from hundreds of GOP elected officials down to the level of county dogcatcher, with nearly $40 million to date in financial support from more than 300 PACs and corporations ranging from GE to Bank of America to Waste Management, and with individual contributions from thousands of business executives, George W. Bush has drowned all other comers in both a sea of green and overwhelming media attention. Barring a Bush plane crash or an unlikely political train wreck, the "contenders" who survived the Ames poll will be allowed only to act out their supporting roles in a yearlong national charade culminating in next summer's formal convention-cum-coronation of George W. Bush, the undisputed nominee to lead the party away from the fringe and back into the White House. While the results of the Ames poll did nothing to alter this inevitability, it did provide a revealing window onto the strengths and fissures of a Bush-led GOP looking toward next year's general election.


George W.: Clinton With a Glint of Steel

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."


Family, Farmers and Fetuses

It's not too tough to figure out why Bush has won the near-unanimous endorsement of the party elite. Beyond his invaluable name recognition, Bush seems almost alone among the candidates to "get it"--to have internalized the simple lesson that the Gingrich strategy long ago ran its course. The rest of the Republican field appears as so many self-caricatures.

Elizabeth Dole rejoiced at finishing third in the Ames poll with 14 percent after so many pundits had predicted she'd be a goner. But her chances--other than as a possible pick for VP--are nil. As she replayed the same canned stump speech at event after event, Dole couldn't refrain from tossing out occasional Gingrichian leftovers. She promised to "rein in the IRS...and get the IRS out of your pockets." On the same day the news reported that six US diplomats in Colombia were under suspicion of drug smuggling, Dole tried to "Noriega-ize" Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo as being personally responsible for the "drug pipeline" into the United States and suggested dispatching US troops to take him out.

Dan Quayle, after coming in eighth in the Ames poll with a laughable 4 percent, still claims that he is the "only candidate who can reassemble the Reagan coalition." But last week he could draw only sixteen people to a "community reception for activists and supporters" staged, appropriately enough, in the gritty Iowa town of Waterloo. Low on cash, the campaign couldn't offer the scraggly bunch as much as cookies or Kool-Aid (though one can imagine nervous Quayle staff members keeping the dispirited candidate away from Kool-Aid and any other dangerous substances). "I know you sometimes feel very lonely," he told his bewildered audience as he openly seethed with resentment at being outshone by the son of the man to whom he was Vice President. Later, Quayle complained to me that the GOP was risking defeat in 2000 because "some in our party, by their ambiguity and by their having government do more and more, are taking our party too far to the left."

Steve Forbes went all out to beat Bush in the Ames poll. First he raided opposition campaign staffs and hired away the best organizers in the state. Then he blitzed sixty-six Iowa counties and logged 6,000 miles in just six weeks. He spent a million-plus dollars saturating the airwaves with commercials--some attacking Ayn Rand devotee and Fed chief Alan Greenspan and others vowing to nominate only antiabortion judges. At his campaign events he posed with any and all comers for on-the-spot free digital photos. On the day of the Ames poll the Forbes campaign chartered a hundred buses and Forbes greeted his clients with a grab bag of goodies, a hangar-sized air-conditioned entertainment tent with French doors, a 1,000-seat free feeding area and a McDonald's-like playland for the kiddies.

Forbes claims his second-place finish of 20 percent casts him as the "only conservative alternative to Bush," but in reality, it exposes just how low his natural ceiling is. With his campaign 2000 so far confined mostly to Iowa, Forbes has not yet had a chance to show the rest of America what a fringe character he has become. In '96 he positioned himself as a free-market fundamentalist and a sort of easygoing social libertarian. Now he has resurrected himself as a flat-out fundamentalist. His wooden, robotlike delivery and eerie, remote smile today seem more frightening than funky, as he adopts social conservative positions that might make Reverend Falwell blush. The day after the Ames poll, on a network political talk show, Forbes refused to criticize a recent decision by the Kansas Board of Education to remove the theory of evolution from the school curriculum. "I went with Forbes in '96 for the flat tax," said a Des Moines pharmacist who has now switched to Bush. "But this time around he sounds like one of those Moonies." His showing in the Iowa straw poll may wind up being remembered as the Forbes 2000 high-water mark.

That leaves the Christian right, which marked its own high tide here in 1988 when Christian Coalition pooh-bah Pat Robertson actually won that year's straw poll. But that was then. The political discipline imposed by the coalition has waned as Robertson's group has slowly come apart. In Iowa the remaining shell of the coalition exploded two weeks before the straw poll. After its state chairwoman, entrepreneur Bobbi Gobel, publicly charged that Forbes had tried to hire workers from her temp agency to vote in the Ames poll, the national Christian Coalition got rid of her and her board and closed down the state office. No regrets on Gobel's part. "God has set us free from the Christian Coalition," she said. "We were being strong-armed by half the people in the national office to go with Forbes. The other half are for Bush. Fact is, the people of Iowa are tired of the Christian Coalition."

Gary Bauer, who is running here on what you might call a program of Family, Farmers and Fetuses, scored a minor victory in Ames by outpolling Pat Buchanan by a 9 percent to 7 percent margin. But throw Alan Keyes into the mix, not to mention Forbes, and you have a four-way factional fight over the Christian-right vote. And even in this straw poll, an event truly tailor-cut for the network-type organizing of the Christian constituency, their sum vote was considerably less than a third of the total.

This declining religious-conservative base is one factor that has led to speculation that Buchanan might bolt for the Reform Party--a move that would require muting his culture-wars pitch. As it is, he still thumps for life and moral rearmament, but nowadays Buchanan strongly emphasizes economic populism and attacks his own Republican Party. Perhaps the most surreal moment of the Ames poll was when a caravan of six brightly painted semitrailers bearing the Teamsters logo roared up next to Buchanan's tent and parked in a circle. Scores of blue-capped anti-NAFTA Teamsters poured out from buses accompanying the trucks and the workers noisily rallied, vowing that "our issues will be heard." And they wildly applauded when Buchanan fired off a barrage of anticorporate rhetoric. What an anomaly it is of US politics--and what a frustration it is for progressives--that the only presidential candidate today standing before unionized workers and calling for tougher application of antitrust laws, for a possible lifting of the economic blockades of Cuba and Iraq, who calls NAFTA "a sellout of Americans for the benefit of a lot of bankers," who laments that "we need a leader from any party who will stand up for working Americans against giant transnational corporations," is Pat Buchanan.


Brand W.?

As the 2000 campaign unfolds, Bush's more conservative rivals can and will persevere. Keyes, Bauer and, to a lesser degree, Buchanan, no matter their poll standings, can soldier on, grazing on nuts and berries. For his part, Steve Forbes has got enough personal reserves to keep campaigning right into 2004.

The Republican right can no longer lead the party. But it can be a spoiler, as its message still resonates among many party activists. It has become almost instinctual for the party core to excoriate Clinton. During the speeches at Ames, the loudest outburst of applause was elicited by Buchanan. "My first act in office?" he said, pausing dramatically. "After I'm sworn in I will be the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement officer. So I will turn to Bill Clinton and I will say, 'Sir, you have the right to remain silent...'"

Another loud ovation was showered on zealot Alan Keyes when he shouted out his most extreme and top priority proposals: "repealing the 16th Amendment"--i.e., abolishing the federal income tax--and "ending government-dominated schools."

But this sort of fringe rhetoric is also what's driving so many Republicans so quickly and so unblinkingly into the more reassuring embrace of George W. Bush. Bush's challenge over the next year is to continue imposing his new "inclusive" line on the party while not provoking the hard right into open rebellion or desertion. His father failed to fully reassemble the cross-factional unity of the Reagan era. But fresh memories of the Gingrich debacle are working in W.'s favor. Back in the early phase of the 1996 campaign I recall reporting on a Florida Republican women's straw poll in which the overwhelming sentiment regarding Bob Dole was that he was an uninspiring but inevitable burden that just had to be resigned to. Now, there's a dramatic shift in mainstream GOP ranks--almost a frenzy to sign on to the Bush candidacy.

It's among Democrats, in fact, that there's open disgruntlement over the supposed inevitability of the flagging Al Gore candidacy. Indeed, there was an audible pro-Bill Bradley buzz among frightened Iowa Democrats as the former New Jersey senator toured the state the week of the straw poll, trying to take advantage of the media spotlight. Further, to confront George W. Bush effectively the Democrats are going to have to find some proactive vision to campaign on. The Clinton-era strategy of simply putting Newt's face on the GOP and offering the Democrats as a kinder, gentler option is being eclipsed. Democrats who think they can counter Bush by simply pointing at his pro-gun and anti-choice positions have not yet seen the Texas governor in action. And Democrats' attempts to hit Bush on his lavish campaign financing evaporate against reports that the Democratic National Committee intends to raise $200 million in soft money from special interests. Likewise, Bush is fully inoculated against frat-boy and drug-use charges by the public revulsion over Monicagate. Unless the Democrats can come up with a clear post-Clinton strategy, they risk a stern licking from someone who has studied them well.

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