Bush's importance of being earnest

May 26, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Watching George W. Bush deliver a speech on foreign policy can be an unsettling experience. His delivery is sometimes just halting enough to make you wonder how comfortable he is with the subject matter. And, of course, the suspicion that he doesn't know what he is talking about is already widespread.

The same questions were raised about other governors when they were first emerging as serious possibilities for the White House. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all evoked doubts about their foreign policy credentials. The difference was that none of them had the history of the present governor of Texas of making gaffes on such matters as the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia and Greeks and Grecians.

But the Bush strategists are well aware of these questions, and they are professionals who don't ignore problems. As a result, over the last 10 days the Republican presidential nominee-presumptive has been conducting a shrewd campaign to resolve them.

When Republicans in Congress were considering legislation to impose a date for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Kosovo, Governor Bush was quick to oppose it. The message was that no president wants his hands tied and, not incidentally, that these Republicans on Capitol Hill should keep in mind that he fully intends to become the president.

Governor Bush was equally forceful in putting himself on record behind President Clinton and former presidents of both parties in supporting legislation to give China permanent status as a trading partner. Again, the message was that he intends to be the one concerned with trade questions beginning in January and thus shares the concerns of the president, even if he is a Democrat.

A few days later there was Governor Bush addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and criticizing Mr. Clinton on the administration's obvious tilt toward Ehud Barak in the Israeli election. The gesture to conservatives within the Republican Party was clear, and so was the message that this president-in-the-making has his own ideas about the Middle East.

The climax of this credentialing campaign was, of course, Governor Bush's statement here outlining his own ideas on what kind of missile defense the United States requires.

Again, the Texas governor had two obvious purposes. He was stroking the foreign policy hawks in his own party who have made the missile defense question their principal focus now that there are so few communists to hunt down. And, more to the point, he was projecting the image of a potential president with the expertise and insight to deal with national security matters.

In making that critical point, Bush surrounded himself with foreign policy heavyweights from several previous administrations _among them George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Don Rumsfeld and, icon of all icons, Colin Powell.

There was nothing subtle here. The lesson was: Not to worry, George W. Bush is not going it alone. General Powell already has said he would be willing to serve as secretary of state in a Bush administration.

This is good politics. Foreign policy issues rarely make any difference in presidential elections as long as the national security is not threatened. All that is required is for the presidential candidate to persuade the voters he would be a safe choice. And even Ronald Reagan, notoriously vague on complex subject matter, managed that in a time when the Cold War was still being waged.

It is possible to quibble with some of the specifics of Governor Bush's proposals or, in some cases, with the lack of specifics. His promise to move toward establishing the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv is a time-honored pander to Jewish voters usually made by Democratic candidates during New York presidential primaries and then forgotten once they take office. In fact, the establishment of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is such a touchy issue that it has been left for the final phase of the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

There are also complex and subtle questions about the future of our missile defenses, the kind of questions that don't lend themselves to answers in the rhetoric of a political campaign. The bottom line for Americans on most of these matters is whether they can trust those who have the expertise to provide the right solutions.

As the governor of Texas and the former owner of a baseball team, George W. Bush doesn't automatically qualify as an expert. But he is acting aggressively to show voters he is a prudent man with access to all the experts.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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