- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

Like father, like son?

George H.W. Bush blew his re-election chances in 1992 with a big tax increase and a lackluster campaign, never taking Bill Clinton seriously until it was too late. The lasting image of that campaign was of the president looking at his watch midway through the final debate. In more ways than one he didn’t know what time it was.

George the junior hasn’t blown his chances, not yet, but he shows signs of making the same fatal mistake, of scorning his base much in the way his daddy did 12 years ago.

Early on in the ‘92 campaign the Bush campaign chiefs openly scorned the social, or religious, conservatives and the issues important enough to get them out to vote. “Where else can they go?” his campaign chairman asked editors and reporters at a memorable luncheon interview at The Washington Times.

Sometimes the voters apply painful lessons, and millions of evangelical and other church-going Christians found somewhere to go, and it wasn’t to the polls. Months later, the 41st president told me, with no small measure of rue: “I got good advice, and I got bad advice, and I took the bad advice.”

George W. is getting similarly bad advice now, and the president’s poll numbers show it. The numbers are not in free fall but are nonetheless slipping with discouraging speed. The closely watched Rasmussen daily tracking poll credited John Kerry with 48 percent of the popular vote yesterday, down a point from the day before, and President Bush with 45 percent. Monsieur Kerry has held a similar three-point advantage on 10 of the past 21 days. Mr. Bush has been ahead, by only a single point, on only two days in the last three weeks. The two men were tied on three of those days, and the rest of the time Monsieur Kerry was up 1 or 2 points. Rasmussen shows the Democratic candidate with a modest lead in the Electoral College.

The race is close by any measure, and that is not news to cheer an incumbent. The bad news is that if the election were held today Monsieur Kerry would probably win. The only nugget of good news is that if the election were held today we would all be very surprised. The election is in November, still 80 days away and time enough for voter enthusiasm to go around the world several times.

The president’s ace in the hole is John Kerry himself. Nobody, not even Teresa some of the time, seems to like him very much. Even his fans, if you can call them that, find him weak, indecisive, stiff and arrogant. John Edwards, as cute and cuddly as everyone says he is (I’ll take their word for it), has hardly helped. John the Smaller swept through Arkansas the other day, softening his r’s and dropping his final g’s and calling everybody “y’all” to remind everyone of what a good ol’ boy he is, but when he dropped in at Craig’s, a famous shrine to the barbecued pig in DeValls Bluff, his media men had to recruit from his traveling press claque to cast the place with enough “customers” to make the television pictures credible.

But an ace has to be played to win a hand. The president, like his daddy, is reluctant to play his strong hand. It’s the Republican disease, by no means restricted to the Bushes, a weakness for trying to win by persuading voters that “Republicans are not really as bad as you think.” In politics, as in love and courtship, the prize goes to the bold.

The president is bold only in the kisses he blows to the opposition. His gurus appear to think they can win only by shunning his natural base, by keeping a decorous distance from the controversial issues, and by peeling a few hundred thousand Hispanic votes away from the Democrats by pandering to illegal aliens, mostly Mexicans. Why else would Asa Hutchinson, who as the undersecretary of Homeland Security is the guardian of the nation’s border, gush effusively about the necessity to ignore immigration law so illegals won’t “have trouble sleeping”? Mr. Hutchinson, a good man who must know better, no doubt had his fingers crossed when he offered that testimony to satisfy Teddy Kennedy and the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who so easily intimidate the administration. The White House imagines that a back-door amnesty for the “undocumented aliens” — i.e., those who flout U.S. law to get here ahead of those who go by the rules — can be a rich vein of votes.

Blowing kisses to those who despise them is always tempting strategy for a certain kind of Republican, to whom smash-mouth politics does not come naturally. There’s still time for George W. to pull up his socks, but even in mid-August it’s getting late.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times



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