What has Bush learned?

February 25, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The last time George W. Bush lost a primary to John McCain, in New Hampshire, he said he learned a lesson. What he learned, he told crowds repeatedly afterward, was that he let the opposition define him instead of defining himself.

So, having seen Mr. McCain's success campaigning as a reformer, Mr. Bush simply stole the label. At South Carolina rallies, up went large blue-and-white banners proclaiming "A Reformer With Results." In speech after speech he talked about the reforms he had achieved as governor of Texas in education, welfare and taxes.

But that was only part of his re-education after his New Hampshire defeat. He learned that his nomination was not quite as "inevitable" as many folks were suggesting, and his palsy-walsy attitude toward his good buddy John McCain was not going to make Mr. McCain melt away.

So, in spite of his early pledge not to run a negative campaign, he began "defining" Mr. McCain as well as himself, and the definition was unflattering. Mr. Bush started airing negative ads, painting Mr. McCain as a tool of lobbyists who contributed to his campaign (though Mr. Bush had taken much more money from lobbyists).

Mr. McCain, remembering how his campaign finance reform colleague, Democrat Bill Bradley, had been damaged by not quickly responding to attacks from Vice President Al Gore, decided he had to respond. In a major blunder, he ran two ads that in effect said Mr. Bush was no more truthful than Bill Clinton -- about the worst thing that can be said about a Republican these days.

Mr. Bush, playing the injured party, called the comparison "a low blow" and played off it for all he was worth. Mr. McCain quickly took the ads off the air but Mr. Bush continued to wail anyway about the invidious comparison. Mr. McCain called on Mr. Bush to join him in eliminating all negative ads, but Mr. Bush declined.

Mr. McCain finally decided to pledge on his own to run no more negative ads, whether Mr. Bush did the same or not. The gesture didn't save him in South Carolina, and Mr. Bush took another lesson from his comeback there -- to keep hammering at his opponent in the next primary in Michigan.

Again running as "a reformer with results" and airing negative ads against Mr. McCain, Mr. Bush apparently thought he had found the winning formula. In his speeches across Michigan he said relatively little about Mr. McCain and talked more about his expected general-election target, Vice President Al Gore. With Michigan Gov. John Engler aggressively mobilizing the state's conservative Republican establishment for him, Mr. Bush was confident he would bury Mr. McCain there. But something happened on the way to the cemetery. Democrats and independents, just as they had in New Hampshire and South Carolina, flocked to the polls for Mr. McCain. Just as many of them turned out as did Republicans, and suddenly Mr. McCain was still alive and kicking.

So, the question is, what did Mr. Bush learn from his Michigan defeat? Will he start reaching out to Democrats and independents? With fewer primaries ahead in which they can vote, it's not likely. Rather, with his candidacy firmly rooted in the Republican conservative establishment, his solution more likely will be to re-emphasize his commitment to it, while challenging Mr. McCain's loyalty to the GOP.

On the night of his defeat in Michigan, Mr. Bush said Mr. McCain "is going to learn in the long run that it's Republicans and like-minded independents who are going to make the decisions in the Republican primaries."

It's a bit ironic that Mr. Bush, who used to boast how he was able to attract independents and Democrats in Texas, now attacks Mr. McCain's ability to do the same. But no Republican can be elected president without some Democratic and independent support. By politically excommunicating these non-Republicans, Mr. Bush could win the nomination but lose the war in November.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux,1999).

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