- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

The complaint I hear most often from worried Republican leaders around the country is that George W. Bush has not had a compelling national message.
A strong, conservative policy agenda, yes. Reaganesque tax cuts. Legal reform. Accountability in our schools. Pro-life. A stronger defense. But not a dramatic, transformational theme that encapsulates his agenda, arouses and energizes the Republican base and signals to people across party lines what a Bush presidency would mean for the country.
"Where's the message? What does George Bush stand for? Who is he? That's not filtering through," complains North Dakota Gov. Edward T. Schafer, chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Mr. Schafer is not alone in his frustration. Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett told me that Mr. Bush's problem is that "he really has not had a compelling message."
John McCain "has had a compelling reform message, one that resonates with independents and Democrats," Mr. Bennett said.
"But what is Bush going to do? He's got to flesh that out," Mr. Bennett says. He thinks Mr. Bush has a good record of reform in his state, but that it has not been packaged and sold effectively.
Mr. Bush's stump speech reminds voters that the budget surpluses represent excess funds that exceed what is needed to run the government. He thinks some of it should be sent back to the taxpayers, who could spend it much more prudently. If you let Congress spend the surpluses it "will expand the reach and scope of the federal government," he warns.
But Mr. Bennett and others are disappointed that Mr. Bush rarely raises the issue of wasteful spending or the scandals and corruption that have beset the Clinton administration for the past seven years. Where are the hot-button phases like "it is time to clean house from top to bottom" or "one of the most embarrassing, scandal-ridden presidencies in our history"?
After following Mr. Bush on the campaign trail, I have to agree with the criticism. His positive stump speech is pretty good as far as it goes, but it has neither red-meat attacks to fire up the party faithful nor cross-party appeals to independents and swing Democrats.
He talks about education, but does not use the words "school choice," a phrase that would resonate with Republican voters as well as with many minority-group members whose children are trapped in failing schools. He talks about saving Social Security, but not about letting workers invest their payroll taxes for their retirement.
Republican leaders and strategists have wanted Mr. Bush to be much more aggressive with John McCain, too. When Mr. McCain hit Mr. Bush with charges that his campaign played to a "racist" element when Mr. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University, or compared him with Bill Clinton in trustworthiness, the Texas governor began his response with the phrase "I don't appreciate that." He accuses Mr. McCain of being hypocritical, saying one thing and doing another, but his responses seem murky and muted and defensive.
When Mr. McCain launched a fiery attack on conservative religious leaders such as Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson, he said that Mr. Bush was supported by "agents of intolerance" and called Mr. Bush "a Robertson Republican."
In response, Mr. Bush accused Mr. McCain of trying to divide the party, of being "someone who likes to castigate, not someone who likes to lead." That is certainly true as far as it goes, but it doesn't do the job. Americans want their presidents to fight for their beliefs and defend their integrity.
Mr. McCain calls himself a Reagan conservative. But, as Mr. Bush has pointed out, Ronald Reagan "didn't point fingers. He never played to people's religious fears like Senator McCain has shamelessly done."
That's better, but even in the wake of his Tuesday primary victories in Virginia, North Dakota and Washington state, Mr. Bush needs to sharpen his offensive against Mr. McCain and say the Arizonan is at war with his own party, that he is a divisive influence in the country, pitting one group in the GOP against another and exploiting religion for his own political advancement.
Mr. McCain has said he wants his party to be more inclusive, but he intolerantly wants to rid the GOP of its Christian conservatives because they disagree with him on many issues. He has decried the politics of attack and smear, but he paid for a vast telephone campaign in heavily Catholic Michigan that suggested Mr. Bush was anti-Catholic. He denied having anything to do with the calls, then admitted when the voting was over that he paid for them.
Mr. Bush needs to turn the heat up on Mr. McCain. Instead of always responding to his attacks, Mr. Bush needs to lob a few of his own and put Mr. McCain on the defensive in the remaining primaries, such as in delegate-rich New York and California, where Mr. McCain still sees a chance.
One issue Mr. Bush should raise is Mr. McCain's notorious unpopularity among his Republican Senate colleagues and his inability to work with them to forge a consensus behind legislative solutions.
"When someone is an outcast on his own team, can he possibly govern effectively?" asks election analyst Charles Cook. "After all, can a reformer reform if he can't work with his own party?"
That's a critical question that Mr. Bush ought to begin raising over the next two weeks.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist

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