The Can't-Miss Kid
By Robert Bryce
JUNE 1, 1999: Face it, George W. Bush is going to be our next president. And you don't have to be a political genius or a mathematician to understand why. Bush was just re-elected in a landslide. As a presidential candidate, he wins all 32 of Texas' electoral college votes without breaking a sweat. He likely wins Florida too, where his brother, Jeb, is governor, giving him another 25 electoral votes. Those two states alone give Bush over a fifth of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the White House. He will run hard in California (54 electoral votes), forcing the Democratic nominee, presumably Vice President Al Gore, to spend huge amounts of money in a state that he absolutely must win. Bush spends millions on TV and radio wooing Hispanic voters in California, New York, and Illinois. The Democrats cede Texas to him. The governor goes on to carry the South while winning one or more of the big northern states and maybe even California.
The other big states are important. But Texas holds the keys to the White House. Why? Over the past 75 years -- 19 presidential elections -- only two men have won the presidency without winning Texas. Bill Clinton did it twice -- losing Texas in 1996 to Viagra pitchman Bob Dole, and in 1992 to former president George H.W. Bush -- and Richard Nixon did it in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey. But before that, you have to go all the way back to Calvin Coolidge, who lost the state to John W. Davis in 1924, the same year the Congress granted citizenship to Native Americans. Adding more doubt to the Democrats' White House plans: The last member of their party to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976.
With Bush as their nominee, the Republicans are "in a position where they can try to execute the kind of Southern strategy that they did in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan," says Earl Black, a professor of political science at Rice University. "If the Republicans nominate someone who can carry the South from Florida to Texas, then they are in a position where they only need a third of the electoral vote in the rest of the country."
In addition to his advantage with the home crowd in Texas, Bush's other advantages include: money, his handlers, a naughty background, and his wife, Laura.
First comes money. Bush will raise more than anyone else. His campaign committee's goal is $50 million, and he'll likely raise much more than that. He's already raised $13 million -- far more than any other Republican candidate -- and he did it without holding a single fundraiser.
And that's where the handlers come in, because that money didn't fall out of the sky. It has been raised in prodigious amounts, in a relatively short time, by campaign people who know how to raise cash and present their candidate. That $13 million figure, which TheNew York Times reported last week, is almost double the amount Bush had reported at the end of March.
No matter what you think of him, you have to hand it to Bush's handlers; they know how to stage an event. And they proved it during the March 7 announcement of Bush's exploratory committee. There were Texas flags, American flags, blue curtains, theatrical lights. It looked like the event was produced at the State Department, not some cavernous ballroom at the Austin Convention Center. Three dozen TV cameras caught every action. Reporters from 85 media outlets paid rapt attention.
As the event began, Bush's three main handlers buzzed around the room. Karen Hughes, his press secretary, a tall, fast-talking former TV reporter, raced frantically about, bouncing off reporters and campaign staffers. Joe Allbaugh, the thick-necked, crew-cut chief of staff who acts as Bush's enforcer, chatted up supporters. Karl Rove, the balding, bespectacled political strategist, hurried to check out a few things on his candidate's new Web site. All three were nervous, knowing that the event was the largest single political happening they'd yet been involved with. Weeks of planning had gone into it. Hughes had been in charge of what she later called "the stage design, the set." Rove decided which GOP leaders would be part of the exploratory committee and how the event would proceed. Allbaugh, who looks big enough to body slam Jesse Ventura, was in charge, as always, of protecting his boss.
The planning came off without a single mishap. Bush didn't fumble. The speeches by the exploratory committee members were laudatory; some bordered on smarmy. The mainstream media loved it. The New York Times, which carried a color photo of the event on the front page, above the fold, called it a "grand pageant of political might." The event bolstered the illusion that Bush is a presidential shoo-in, that with all the GOP firepower assembling behind him, his only remaining challenge is measuring curtains for the White House.
The Man Behind the W.In retrospect, the March 7 coming-out party further solidified Rove's position as Bush's go-to guy. Yes, Hughes and Allbaugh are important. Both are smart and both are close to Bush. But both are easily replaced. And neither have been with Bush as long as Rove, who escorted Bush on those first few shaky press conferences in November of 1993 when Bush announced he was running against Ann Richards. A longtime friend of the Bush family, Rove has known the Bushes since 1973, when he was president of the College Republicans, and the chairman of the GOP was an oil man from Texas named George Herbert Walker Bush. A few years later, Rove was the first person Bush hired when he decided to run for president. In 1977, Rove went to work for Bush's Houston-based political action committee -- the Fund for Limited Government -- which later became Bush's presidential campaign organization. Bush, of course, lost that 1980 race to Ronald Reagan and decided to accept the vice-president's job under The Great Communicator.
Rove has another claim to fame: He introduced the late Lee Atwater to former president Bush. Atwater went on to become one of Bush's closest political advisers; while it was a Democrat, Gore, who first injected the criminal record of Willie Horton into the 1988 political campaign, it was Atwater who used the specter of Horton to hamstring Michael Dukakis' bid for the presidency. Rove has the same killer instinct that Atwater had, and he's shown it in his ability to promote and raise money for Republicans. Five years ago, Mark McKinnon, a political consultant who rose to prominence working for Democrats, told me in a bit of an overstatement, "Karl Rove is the Republican Party in Texas."
McKinnon, who now works for Bush, is unlikely to use that kind of hyperbole today. But his point holds. Rove, through his consulting company, Karl Rove & Co., has helped transform Texas from a state run exclusively by Democrats to one run exclusively by the GOP.
In the late Seventies, Rove worked for Bill Clements, the Republican who broke the Democrats' century-long stranglehold on the governor's office in 1978. In 1982, Rove began working for Phil Gramm, who was still in the U.S. House of Representatives and still a Democrat; two years later, he helped get Gramm elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican. During the 1984 election, Rove did direct mail work for the Reagan/Bush campaign. Two years later, he helped Clements win a second stint in the governor's office. In 1988, Rove advised Tom Phillips, who became the first Republican ever elected to the Texas Supreme Court (within a decade, the GOP would hold all nine seats). In 1990, he helped another party switcher, Rick Perry, beat incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. That same year, he worked for former Railroad Commissioner Kent Hance (yet another Dem-turned-to-the-GOP) in his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, but Rove hasn't worked on many losing campaigns in Texas. During last November's contests, he advised a half-dozen successful Republicans, including state Sen. Steve Ogden, Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza, Attorney General John Cornyn, and Supreme Court Justices Craig Enoch and Greg Abbott.
Bush obviously values Rove's expertise, and Rove does indeed make him pay for it. From July through the end of October, Bush's gubernatorial re-election committee paid Rove's consulting company over $2 million for consulting, voter outreach, and administrative work. (Most of it went for postage, Rove insists.) In addition, Bush's campaign paid Rove's direct mail outfit, Praxis List Company, an additional $267,000 for the use of its mail lists. But the money was well spent. Bush killed Democratic challenger Garry Mauro in the fundraising arena. Then he killed him at the ballot box. Rove was responsible for raising most of Bush's millions, and he has the direct-mail expertise that will allow Bush to raise the tens of millions of dollars needed for a presidential bid.
Bush continues to pay Rove big money. The first financial disclosure form released by Bush's presidential exploratory committee shows that the committee paid Rove & Co. $220,228 -- nearly a quarter of the committee's total expenditures through March 31. The vast majority of the money that the committee paid Rove -- $162,813 -- was for direct-mail expenses.
Bush is quick to praise Rove, calling him "a close friend of mine" and "confidant" who has "good judgment." It's also clear that Bush values Rove more than any of his other advisers. He has become so important that Bush recently talked him into selling his successful consulting business so he could spend all his time working for Bush's presidential committee. Rove recently told reporters he didn't get a very good price for his consulting business. But then, he also realized he didn't have much of a choice. He has hitched his wagon to Bush, and he either wins with him or he fails with him. If Rove succeeds in putting his guy in the White House, he'll easily depose James Carville and Dick Morris as the pundit du jour.
From Wild to MildBush has the money. He has Rove. But he has another unlikely advantage: He inhaled. It sounds silly, but Bush's rowdy past is playing well. In fact, in a weird way, it's almost become a selling point. Bush has been coy about his premarital hijinks. He refuses to discuss whether he snorted cocaine, smoked pot, or seduced multiple coeds. But from all the stories that have been floating around, including the story that he once danced nude atop a bar (Bush denies that there's a picture proving it, though he doesn't exactly deny that he may have done it), none have been so salacious -- let alone provable -- as to make any difference. Best of all, Bush can talk about being faithful to his wife. So what if he chased girls before he was married? It was, he will say, before he was married. And so what if he drank like a fish? He doesn't drink alcohol any more. So even if reporters find out that Bush did some nasty deeds, like, say, growing pot in the back yard or snorting half of Colombia's gross national product, it will likely pale in comparison to what Clinton has done while serving as president.
Clinton has made Bush scandal-proof. What could Bush have done that would top committing adultery with an intern in the Oval Office? No matter what reporters or Democrats turn up, it's unlikely to hurt Bush. As former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards once said, the only way he could be hurt was if reporters found him "in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."
Finally, the Bushes are running two campaigns: His and Hers. While George W. permits out-of-state politicos to kiss his ring, Laura Bush has launched her own campaign. It has been a quiet campaign, but there's no doubt that she has assumed a much higher profile over the past few months than she did during the governor's first term. Politically, it's a smart move. Laura is charming, attractive, and people like her. The governor's press people insist that the new, higher profile doesn't have anything to do with politics. She "would be just as comfortable being the first lady of Texas as she would the first lady of the United States," says Hughes. "I think it's more that she has found that she enjoys what she's doing, and that she can make a difference in people's lives."
That may be the case, but it's also clear that Laura Bush's higher profile neatly coincides with her husband's bid for the White House. Within hours after the governor announced his decision to "consider running for president," the first lady was at a fundraising soirée for the Austin Museum of Art, a fundraising effort she has agreed to lead.
In her more public role, Laura Bush is promoting only the most noncontroversial issues. She promotes children's education and literacy, as well as leading the Texas Book Festival and the museum. In doing so, she's positioning herself as the anti-Hillary Clinton. She's not going to hog the spotlight. She's not going to assume any positions that threaten the people in power or cause them to focus on her issues. Imagine if she had chosen different issues to be passionate about, something sticky, like teen pregnancy or AIDS. But of course, she didn't. That would be too political. But it's not too political for her and the governor to tell the press repeatedly just how much they love each other. Who can be against that? And it doesn't hurt that it's another not-too-subtle reminder that George W. and Laura have nothing in common with the marriage of convenience created by Bill and Hillary.
Perhaps Laura Bush's move into the spotlight is a warmup for the campaign for the White House. Even if it's not, it's smart politics. And Laura Bush knows that as well as anyone. Marrying George W., she said recently, "was the smartest political move I ever made." And by being more active, she may help him become the 43rd president.
The Stumbling BlocksHaley Barbour was in full swing. The former head of the Republican National Committee, who now works as a lobbyist, Barbour was bragging on George W. Bush to a room full of journalists and supporters on March 7 at the Austin Convention Center. Bush, said Barbour, is running for president based "on the politics of performance." Barbour clearly meant that Bush has accomplished a lot in Texas. But his term has another meaning: because Bush in reality hasn't shown us performance as much as he's given us one. Like another much-adored Republican, Ronald Reagan, Bush is a consummate actor. He knows how to work a crowd. He has a gift for remembering names, particularly when it comes to reporters. He knows how to sell himself. And his handlers know how to sell him. Like Clinton, Bush is the model for the postmodern president: Don't get bogged down in policy issues. Don't let your opponents define your position. Instead, continually present an in-control, smiling persona that is quick to take credit for any and all accomplishments while avoiding any negative issues. One reporter recently called it "Bush's politics of ambiguity."
But it may be that his ambiguous positions are starting to cause him problems. For months, Bush has been coy about where he stands on a number of key issues. A case in point was his recent dance around the hate crimes bill. Bush said he would look at the bill if it crossed his desk. Then he had his legislative people do everything they could to make sure the bill never got there. Indeed, Bush has sidestepped controversy throughout his reign as governor, and a largely fawning state press corps has let him get away with it so far. But soon, George W. Bush will have to decide exactly what he stands for. Unless he does, his opponents are going to pick him apart on issues like gay rights, abortion, and gun control.
To prove he's not just acting, Bush will give examples of his "politics of performance." And what accomplishments will he point to? Press secretary Karen Hughes says the the key theme will be Bush's support for education. Secondly, she credits Bush with "setting a positive tone, a constructive tone, that has helped people respect their government. It's in stark contrast to the bitter, partisan divide in Washington, D.C. I think the people of Texas feel their government is responsive, and productive, and I think Governor Bush deserves credit for working with legislators in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation and setting a positive tone."
The GOP has pilloried Clinton for being too touchy-feely. But now the press secretary for the man who would be president is saying that Bush's second biggest accomplishment is giving people warm fuzzies about their government? What about old-style political achievements like fixing the roads or taking care of widows and orphans? Democrats will hammer Bush on his feel-good policies and his nebulous claims about "compassionate conservatism." And they'll hammer his refusal to say exactly where he stands on controversial issues on the hate crimes bill.
But Bush faces problems in three other areas, as well: the environment, the baseball deal, and finally, overconfidence.
George W. Bush demonstrated his shotgun approach to environmental policy early in his campaign against Ann Richards. While trying to prove he could shoot doves with the best of them, Bush accidentally gunned down an innocent killdeer, which is not a game bird and looks nothing like a dove. Bush was required to pay a fine for the killdeer incident. Since then, he's decided to pretty much stay inside and only talk about "environment" when the word "business" precedes it. Even the Dallas Morning News, a bastion of conservatism and long a staunch Bush ally, has criticized Bush for his lack of environmental fortitude. On April 12, Timothy O'Leary, a columnist and editorial writer for the paper, penned an op-ed piece blaming Bush for the deteriorating air quality in the Dallas area. "As a consequence of your foot dragging, Dallas-Fort Worth faces the very real prospect of federal sanctions, including restrictions on business development and the denial of highway funds."
O'Leary went on, saying that according to the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation, Texas pollutes more than any state or Canadian province. "A third of the state's rivers and streams probably violate federal water quality standards, though no one is certain because the state declines to test them all. More than two-thirds ofTexans breathe air that federal environmentalists officially classify as dangerous to humans," he continued.
In response to O'Leary's editorial, Linda Edwards, a Bush spokesperson, wrote the Morning News saying Bush has "a strong record of leadership on environmental issues." Edwards said Texas industrial plants are cleaning up, and fewer toxins are being released into the environment since Bush came into office. She added that Bush has called on the owners of grandfathered industrial plants to reduce their emissions. All of those things may be true, but Bush is still vulnerable when it comes to the environment. And he knows it.
At a press conference last week, Bush said the environment "should be a major issue" in next year's presidential election. "I think the environment is incredibly important for the 21st century for America," he said. So what has he done to improve the environment in Texas? Bush replied that "the air is cleaner" since he came into office. Again, that may be true, but it's not due to any action on his part (see "George vs. George" p.28), and in any case, recent EPA figures show Texas continues to lead the nation in the amount of toxins released into the environment. And our state parks are crumbling due to lack of funding. The state spends millions trying to attract tourists from other states. Yet Texas ranks 48th in the nation in per capita spending on parks. Asked what he has done for parks, Bush said he supports a program whereby "parks will be endowed by private capital." Isn't that great? While other GOP governors, including Jeb Bush of Florida, are boldly spending billions to add parkland and open space, our parks beg for dollars from dowagers.
Of course, Bush isn't targeting environmental voters. So maybe his lack of support for green issues won't matter. But his business affairs could hurt him with a lot of voters if the specifics of the deals are publicized. Last year, Bush sold his interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team, making a profit of nearly $15 million in the process -- 25 times more than what he originally invested in the team in 1989. Bush, who was managing general partner of the team until he became governor, didn't do anything illegal. But the ethics of the deal are questionable.
First up is the issue of welfare for the rich. The city of Arlington agreed to sell $135 million worth of bonds to build the Ballpark at Arlington for the Rangers -- a stadium that has become one of the most lucrative venues in professional sports. Not only that, the city agreed to condemn land owned by other property owners and use it for development projects around the stadium -- projects that would be owned and controlled by the Rangers. In addition, the city agreed to allow the Rangers to pay a nominal rental fee ($5 million a year) for the stadium, and after 12 years the city would give -- that's right, give -- the stadium to the Rangers. But Bush and his fellow owners didn't show much appreciation for the city's largesse. In 1997, when the city of Arlington presented a bill for $7.5 million to the Rangers for legal costs associated with acquiring some of the land near the stadium, the Rangers refused to pay it even though the team had promised to pay any building costs that exceeded $135 million.
Then there's the question of why, when Bush became governor, did he not put his interest in the team -- his most valuable asset -- into a blind trust like he did with his other assets? Two years ago, Bush explained that putting his share of the team into the trust would have been a change in team ownership. And that, he said, "would have required a vote of the baseball owners," a move Bush said was "unnecessary. We just didn't think it was necessary to get that vote. Secondly, I own it. I mean, there's no question I own it. ... So it's not necessary." But what if, instead of baseball, Bush were involved in an oil deal? And because of that deal, a Dallas millionaire paid the sitting governor of Texas $15 million, with all of it going straight into the governor's pocket, not into his blind trust? Call me crazy, but I think reporters would have been swarming all over the transaction.
The baseball deal is a prime example of Bush's privileged life. He never would have gotten a chance to buy the team if he hadn't been the son of a sitting president. Democrats will hammer him on the deal.
While the abovementioned weaknesses are potentially problematic, Bush's biggest danger is one of the hardest to overcome: overconfidence. It's never been said outright by the governor or anyone else on Bush's team, but there are few things that they would enjoy more than whipping the Democrats and avenging his father's 1992 loss to Bill Clinton. And while Bush clearly has the inside track, he must be careful of being overconfident. "I am going to be the nominee," the governor bragged to William Safire of the New York Times. "I think I am going to be the President."
As soon as Safire's column was published, Bush backed off of those statements, saying he had misspoken. But the damage had been done. Furthermore, there's a precedent for a late-inning collapse in the Bush political dynasty. Seventeen months before the former president was up for re-election, he, too, was a can't-miss candidate. Bill Clinton was stuck in the midst of a gaggle of Democrats. Bush, meanwhile, was riding high after the U.S. military bombed Saddam Hussein's army back into the Stone Age in a 100-hour war. The Dow Jones industrial average was setting new record highs; in April, it had closed above 3,000 for the first time. The economy was showing signs of recovery. The president's approval ratings were at 65%; his negatives only 17%. Of course, we all know what happened.
Today, George W. is the can't-miss candidate. Now he just has to make sure he doesn't.
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