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For Bush, It's 3 O'clock In The Morning

by Steve Chapman

Sometimes he appears cautious, and sometimes he appears paralyzed
George W. Bush's campaign does not have serious problems because he got trounced in New Hampshire by John McCain. He got trounced in New Hampshire because his campaign has serious problems. McCain didn't so much damage Bush as mercilessly expose the flaws that were already there -- flaws that, if not repaired, stand to be an even bigger burden in the general election than they have been in the battle for the GOP nomination.

Someone once said that one of Ulysses S. Grant's virtues as a battlefield commander was "3 o'clock in the morning courage." He was unusual in his ability, when awakened in the middle of the night with a crisis, to deal with it calmly and intelligently. Americans are about to find out if Bush has that quality.

In the aftermath of the New Hampshire debacle, his aides and some political experts took the view that in the end, McCain will be to George W. what Pat Buchanan was to his father in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996 -- a considerable nuisance, but one who will be vanquished in the end. With his cash, organizational strength and institutional party support, the thinking goes, Bush will be able to prevail over an underfunded maverick who evokes active hostility among Republican leaders.

That may not be true. McCain, unlike Buchanan, does not take positions that are wormwood and gall to rank-and-file Republicans. His views on campaign finance and tobacco may offend GOP congressional leaders and some conservative activists, but they won't hurt and may help with ordinary voters. His straight-talking persona and stirring biography imbue his campaign with the aura of a Frank Capra movie. And Bush the Younger, unlike Bush the Elder, does not have the huge advantages that go with White House incumbency.

Until now, he has behaved as though he did. Most of his campaign has been spent hiding from reporters, clinging to his script like a life raft, and offering an agenda that at its best amounted to amiable mush. His sole memorable phrase, that he was a "compassionate conservative," could have been a shrewd way to package a program, except there was no program to package. It was a catchy label on an empty container.

Bush made it clear to voters what he is not -- not a polarizer, not an race-baiting immigrant-basher, not a self-defeating zealot on abortion, not a Newt Gingrich, not a Tom DeLay -- but gave only the vaguest impressions of what he is.

That mistake might not matter against some opponents, like Elizabeth Dole or Steve Forbes. But it matters against McCain, whose policy prescriptions may be unknown, even to his supporters, but whose personal story makes him the original Man in Full. And it would matter against Al Gore, who has reincarnated himself as a tireless fighter for working families.

Bush entered the campaign with a lot going for him -- a sterling name, an appealing personality, an excellent record as governor of the nation's second-biggest state, and a license to print money. His fatal error was assuming those were enough to carry him effortlessly to the nomination. Bush started the game with a three-touchdown lead and figured all he had to do was run out the clock.

Sometimes he appears cautious, and sometimes he appears paralyzed. Often, he brings to mind his father's inability to come to grips with "the vision thing." Even worse is that he occasionally sounds like Dan Quayle -- not because he couldn't name the prime minister of India but because he can't answer unforeseen questions with confidence and authority. You get the idea, watching him in debates and other forums where he has to deal with the unscripted and the unexpected, that he could make a fool of himself at any moment.

McCain, by contrast, who gabs endlessly with reporters all the livelong day, thrives on spontaneity. He may not have an answer for every question, but he doesn't seem to fear any of them.

Bush is smarter, tougher, and more able than the candidate Americans have seen. But the only way for the better George W. to come through is to do some of what Al Gore has done. He ought to hold town meetings and promise to stay as long as it takes to answer every question anybody wants to ask. He ought to tear down the protective cordon and converse with journalists everyday. He ought to figure out exactly what he wants to accomplish as president and get that across to voters. He needs to start playing to win instead of playing not to lose.

If he can't manage that, he may be able to fend off McCain only to become a stationary tackling dummy for Al Gore. A bolder campaign carries the risk of failure. But Bush knows from his days in the oil industry that the only people who never drill a dry hole are those who never dare to drill.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor February 6, 2000 (

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