Take last week. The Bush campaign has looked at both primaries and decided the big lesson is that one should never go "off-message" under any circumstances. Bill Bradley rose to the bait of Gore's attacks and lost track of the gospel he was trying to get across, depriving people of any reason to vote for him. (Granted, that gospel was "Vote for me because I'm better than you," but that's a topic for another article.) After a 20-point surprise drubbing at the hands of John McCain in New Hampshire, Bush himself had to repudiate his painstakingly crafted "compassionate conservative" image in South Carolina, and will spend the rest of the campaign atoning for his mistakes. n So now Bush has scrambled back to pre-South Carolina mode, and will do anything to keep from being lured back to his Bob Jones-visitin' ways. Last week was his week for education. He toured a charter school in one of New Jersey's inner cities and put forward two programs, both of them stupid. The first was a $5 billion "literacy plan," which happens to be (a) a carbon copy, right down to some of the language in the press releases, of a Clinton initiative from the 1996 elections, and (b) five times more expensive as the $900 million literacy program congressional Republicans have been trying to keep bottled up in committee on the grounds it was too expensive.
Bush's second pillar of educational wisdom was his "Strong Teachers, Strong Schools" plan. This one costs $3 billion and is even more insipid. It involves bulking up President Clinton's silly "Troops to Teachers" program from $2.4 to $30 million, paying $400 million for teacher training, insuring teachers against the malpractice lawsuits many of them so richly deserve, and giving teachers $400 expense accounts.
It's tough to think of anything farther from a conservative vision of education than enlisting Washington to provide petty cash for the shop teacher. The Bush plan is?let's not mince words here?McGovernite liberalism. Any Bushie who claimed that John McCain didn't deserve the nomination because he wasn't a "real conservative" ought wash his mouth out with soap.
Not only has this plan nothing to do with conservatism; it has nothing to do with education. None of the money goes to schools; it all goes into what Reaganite officials used to refer to as "the Blob"?the educational bureaucracy set up to provide perks to teachers, at the expense of students. Does Bush think he's going to win the endorsement of the National Education Association? If so, he's guilty of the greatest Republican political miscalculation since Jack Kemp thought he could build a GOP presidential coalition around the black vote. At least Kemp had a moral case to make?his outreach could inspire admiration even if it was a sure road to electoral defeat. Bush is just providing political ammo to those very liberals 99 percent of his fellow Republicans blame for wrecking American education.
One should note that Gore tried almost immediately to attack Bush's Texas education record as a trick, claiming it was based on drills and students' cheating on exams. So you can say that Bush's education message at least provided Gore with yet another opportunity to demonstrate to voters his stupendous dishonesty. But any issue would have served that purpose.
Bringing up Father As he feels his way around national electoral politics, what's uncanny is how closely Dubya's worst instincts resemble his father's. It was George Herbert Walker Bush, after all, who vowed to become "the education president," only to preside over four years of plummeting test scores, campus politicization and a tightening Democratic Party stranglehold over the very teachers unions whose coffers his son now aims to fill.
In his vice-president-picking instincts, too, Dubya is a chip off the old block. Granted, there has never been a nominee who looked like a more inevitable veep choice than Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. He's everything: Vietnam vet, Catholic, pro-choice, great buddy of Bush, and the most popular politician in a crucial state where Bush and Gore are virtually tied. The problem with Ridge is that he's pro-choice and claims to be Catholic. The theory among influential Catholic Republicans is that a Catholic who supports abortion thereby shows himself not much of a Catholic?and gets less Catholic support than a non-Catholic would.
Under this rationale, nominating Ridge would drive Catholics away. Using him to pick up the Romish faction would be like trying to pick up the Jewish vote with a Jew-for-Jesus, or the Communist vote with an ex-Communist. Whatever the status of Ridge, Bush was said to have been intrigued last week with the idea of tapping the amiable dunce John Kasich, and the two have hit it off like gangbusters in a number of informal screening meetings. Like his father, who was always uncomfortable around smart people, Bush, if he had his druthers, would opt for a Dumb and Dumber ticket.
But nothing links Dubya more closely to his dad than this obsession with "message." The Bush White House was always sharply divided between (a) those who tried to hammer home a "line of the week" that would vault them onto the Federal Page of The Washington Post, below the fold, and (b) those who wanted to intervene in ongoing news stories, in hopes of making banner headlines in The New York Times. That the line-of-the-weekers generally triumphed is what made the elder Bush the most legendarily out-of-touch president of the century. (The Baltic countries are struggling to shuck off the Communist yoke after half a century of tyranny? But we're doing auto-insurance reform this week!)
Cross Purposes Specifically, where was Dubya last week while every other household in America was riveted to the Elian Gonzalez case? Elian had everything for Bush. He could have visited a state his brother controls as a popular governor. He could have "heightened the contradictions" for Al Gore, who spent the week trying to carve out his own tepid, keep-Elian position without offending the anti-anti-Communists surrounding Bill Clinton, who don't see what's wrong with Fidel in the first place. By the weekend, stunningly enough, Gore, more than Bush, was linked in the public mind with protecting Elian from Fidel.
Bush could also have gone on the attack against Attorney General Janet Reno. The 72-hour ultimatum that her Immigration and Naturalization Service gave the Lazaro Gonzalez family to renounce their rights to Elian was taken as such a wanton display of bullying that Cuban-Americans poured into the streets chanting "Waco, Waco." Last Thursday, Reno was forced to push her deadline back into this week, cowering behind legalisms and committing one gaffe after another. "We believe the law is clear," she said in her Thursday press conference. "The father must speak for the little boy because the sacred bond between parent and child must be recognized and honored, and Elian should be reunited with his father." Never mind that the Clintons, with their "pre-emptive interventions" and attacks on "deadbeat dads," have done more monkeying with that "sacred bond" than any administration to date.
Reno also showed she didn't understand what "federalism" means. When Miami/Dade Mayor Alex Penelas warned that his police wouldn't cooperate if federal troops were sent in to seize Elian, she replied, "I have been there, when I wondered whether the federal government was going to support us, and then in the middle of Hurricane Andrew's recovery, when local government couldn't do it, the federal government was there. I have been there when drugs seemed to be overwhelming the community, and the federal government was there. I think in this great country, which is operated on principles of federalism, the government in Miami will continue to uphold the law..." Huh? The Attorney General seems to think "federalism" is a synonym for "centralism."
Finally, Bush could have visited a throng of sympathetic Catholics who claim the Blessed Virgin has appeared in a plexiglas bank window a couple of blocks from Elian's house. Bush may not be anti-Catholic as the McCain campaign so scurrilously claimed he was. But he's certainly the type of Protestant who believes that, if there really were a Virgin Mother of God, she'd be more likely to appear in the members' bar at the Metropolitan Club.