Softer Bush spooks Democrats

July 17, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There was an interesting and perhaps revealing juxtaposition of news stories about the presidential campaign the other day.

From State College, Pa., Democratic governors attending the annual conference of the National Governors' Association grumbled about how Gov. George W. Bush of Texas had never been very active or influential in the group's deliberations.

In Baltimore, Hillary Rodham Clinton warned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that it shouldn't be beguiled by Mr. Bush's sweet talk about reaching out to black Americans.

And in Little Rock, there was Vice President Al Gore attacking Mr. Bush for failing to lead on a "patients bill of rights" bill in Congress.

While all this protesting-too-much fulmination was going on, candidate Bush was getting his picture taken with a 5-year-old black boy during an appearance in Michigan promoting legislation to lead to more adoptions.

The message was unmistakably clear.

The Democrats are preoccupied, perhaps obsessed, with trying to define the Texas governor in negative terms while he continues to play on their turf, as he did by becoming the first Republican candidate since his father in 1988 to appear at an NAACP convention.

None of these things is intrinsically important. Many governors from big states -- Ronald Reagan was a prime example -- have paid little or no attention to the NGA, thus allowing small-state governors such as Bill Clinton to use the annual meetings as a way to gain a little notice from the press. The notion that it matters either way in this campaign is laughable on its face.

The NAACP question may be slightly more pertinent.

If recent political history is a barometer, Democrat Gore can count on winning the support of 85 to 90 percent of African-American voters. If Mr. Bush could reduce that share even by a few points, it might be important in closely contested industrial states. That is not what this is all about, however. What George Bush is doing by speaking to the NAACP and being photographed with that little boy in Michigan is part of his declared campaign to put a different face on conservatism and Republicanism.

His primary concern is not the black voters or the Hispanic voters to whom he appealed last week but instead the large body of moderate Republicans and independents.

These are the voters who have been put off by such hard-line rightists as Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson. They are not ideologues who see politics as a war between the right-thinking conservatives of the Far Right and the morally corrupt heretics of the Far Left. They are ordinary Americans who want a candidate who appeals to their better angels.

Mr. Bush was not that kind of candidate during the primaries. His campaign's attacks on Sen. John S. McCain went far beyond the bounds when, for example, he accused the military hero of forgetting fellow veterans once he entered politics and of being opposed to adequate funding for breast cancer treatment and research. Although Mr. Bush enlisted enough Republicans to make it through the primaries, he fell far short with the party moderates and with the independents any Republican needs to win a presidential election.

So Mr. Bush has been, as they say in Congress, revising and extending his image, meaning simply cleaning up his act. And what is driving many Democrats up the wall is that the Republican candidate appears to getting away with it, if the opinion polls are to be believed.

He is proving once again that the public will believe anything if they hear it often enough. He is demonstrating, as Mr. Gore also has done repeatedly, that there is no penalty for shamelessness in American politics.

The Democrats are probably overreacting. Mr. Bush has softened his image with many voters but most Americans are not yet paying close attention to the campaign.

Both national conventions and three televised debates lie ahead. The candidates have yet to name their vice presidents. And there are differences between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush on enough issues -- taxes, Social Security, Medicare, education, abortion rights, to cite only the most obvious -- so that amiability alone probably cannot carry the day.

But when any candidate spooks the opposition as George Bush has done in the last few weeks, he is on a roll.

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

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.