Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Like Father, Like Son

The Bush clan doesn't like to change strategies -- or advisers. That spelled doom in '92, and it's doing the same thing now.

By Seth Gitell

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  The inside word on GOP presidential challenger George W. Bush is that he suffers from a little-discussed genetic malady. Much like Democratic candidate Bill Bradley's irregular heartbeat, which became public only during the stress of the campaign, Bush's ailment revealed itself when his quest for the presidency hit choppy waters. His problem? He's just like his father.

Political observers are stunned by the extent to which Bush the Younger's campaign is beginning to resemble his father's failed 1992 effort. Both began with high hopes (so much so for George W. that he named his campaign plane Great Expectations). Both candidates seemed invincible. But Bush the Elder was felled by his inability to adapt. And now Bush the Younger is having the same problem.

In 1992, President George Bush was widely viewed as unbeatable. His approval ratings were a sky-high 89 percent. But as his re-election campaign approached, the economy spiraled downward. For the most part, Bush's aides insulated him from the full extent of the bad economic news, though James Baker warned him to stay off the golf course while so many people were getting downsized. And when those aides put Bush in awkward situations -- such as taking him to visit a supermarket where he made a big deal out of the checkout scanner -- no one took the fall for it. A campaign official noted at the time, "The president is not panicked enough to think things really have to change." Bush eventually left office humiliated by a brash Democratic challenger.

Republican insiders say George W. could be heading for a similar fate. Like his father's, Bush's campaign looked promising: he raised an extraordinary $65 million and lined up impressive endorsements from 29 of the 30 Republican governors and 37 Republican senators, including Kit Bond of Missouri, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But now Bush is in trouble. Senator John McCain beat him in New Hampshire, and poll results show the two candidates neck-and-neck in South Carolina and Michigan.

The fundamental problem for George W., like his father, is loyalty. Or, rather, misplaced loyalty. The Bushes come from a long line of New Englanders who valued this quality above all else. Elizabeth Mitchell's new biography, W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty (Hyperion), reports that the candidate's father made oil deals on a handshake and then was cheated out of land he'd agreed to buy. And during his 1992 campaign, when a number of Republicans urged Bush to dump Dan Quayle from the ticket, Bush rebuffed these suggestions -- choosing loyalty over his own political benefit.

Says one Republican source in Washington: "These Bushes believe that if someone was nice to them back in 1946, they've got to stand with them to the bitter end. It ended up hurting the father, and it's going to end up doing the same thing to the son. You can't even get a smart idea into them if you tried."

This past weekend, Bush retreated to his base in Austin, Texas, to retool and strategize. But so far, no major Gore-style campaign restructuring seems to be taking place. Notwithstanding Bush's token attempts to portray himself as a reformer, his people are likely to make only slight, technical adjustments. He and his advisers don't seem to grasp the magnitude of the problem. More ominously for his campaign, Bush is turning to the same people who failed him in New Hampshire -- most notably, political strategist Karl Rove -- to set him back on track.

Bush the Younger seems to think that listening to people other than Rove and a handful of Austin-based footmen would violate some kind of near-feudal arrangement. This blind fidelity is going to drag him down. And yet he persists in listening to people who think that appearing at ultra-conservative Bob Jones University (which bans interracial dating among its students) is a good idea.

The Bush weakness for loyalty was also on display in the decision to have Quayle introduce him at the Bob Jones appearance, which took place the day after the New Hampshire primary. What could the Bush campaign have been thinking? Given the public perception that George W. is not smart enough to be president, why would he make a high-profile appearance with a man more famous than any other politician of recent times for being intellectually challenged? Again, W. is acting just like his father.

"Dan Quayle's well thought of -- particularly in the high country where he gave the endorsement," Rove said on CNN's Evans & Novak last Saturday. "[Bush] is the only one able to unite the disparate wings of the Republican Party."

Rove also promised that Bush would begin to counter allegations made by McCain. "We're going to aggressively set the record straight," he vowed. Bush is now claiming to be the real reformer among the candidates, and alleges that McCain has raised more money from lobbyists than anyone else in the race. And Bush boasts that a McCain adviser, Vin Weber, actually favors Bush's tax plan. In fact, it's been widely reported that Bush raised more than five times more money from lobbyists than McCain did -- and it's McCain who supports campaign-finance reform, not Bush. Weber, meanwhile, is doing everything he can to denounce Bush's claim, calling it an act in a "desperate campaign." All evidence seems to show that Bush's new strategy amounts to this: tack right and get dirty. Here again, Bush is mirroring his old man. In 1988, Willie Horton helped define Bush's tougher new image. And in 1992, Bush labeled Gore the "Ozone Man."

Some in the Bush camp are blaming their problems on Senator Judd Gregg, who headed up Bush's effort in New Hampshire. (Seems the loyalty goes only so far.) According to this spin, those involved in the New Hampshire campaign made decisions on their own and presided over two key Bush blunders. One was a folksy radio ad late in the campaign, reportedly penned by Gregg himself, that featured the senator and Bush chatting back and forth. The ad had about as much pizzazz as cable television's Fishing with John, which it oddly resembled with its slow cadence.

But the other mistake was even more significant. When reporter Andy Hiller of Boston's WHDH-TV asked for an interview with Bush, his people in New Hampshire said yes before checking with Massachusetts operatives who might have known about Hiller's hit-man tactics. We all know what happened next. Hiller challenged Bush to name the leaders of Pakistan, India, Chechnya, and Taiwan. He named only one, Taiwan's President Lee, and the public perception of Bush as a dolt was reinforced.

Still, the Bush people will tell you that McCain is going to have a tough time now, with the race shifting into a mode that plays to the Bush campaign's financial and organizational strengths. Republican governors will rally the troops on Bush's behalf, and money will be spent generously on television advertising. Together with the decisions to highlight McCain's deficiencies and play to the conservatives, they say, this will guarantee the nomination for Bush.

But just as Bush the Elder's campaign missed the way voters perceived the economy issue, such statements reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of how voters see Bush the Younger. Just last week, Luntz Research, the polling masterminds behind the Contract with America, conducted focus groups on George W. Bush for MSNBC. They discovered, according to senior vice-president Chris Ingram, that the problem is not Bush's packaging, but the man himself. Voters "have problems with Bush. They're concerned about his smirk. They're concerned about his intellectual capabilities," says Ingram, adding that Bush's new strategy fails to address these obstacles. "The Bush campaign is starting to bring out all the big guns they have, but I'm a little bit befuddled, because they brought out all the big guns in New Hampshire and it didn't work."

Hearing that some Bush campaigners blame Gregg for the defeat in New Hampshire leaves Ingram tongue-tied. "Judd Gregg didn't make people think George Bush has a smirk. Judd Gregg didn't make George Bush fail that quiz of foreign leaders. He didn't make him cancel all of his campaign appearances the day before the election day. Judd Gregg is not the one who denies access to the press," he says. "If they start blaming all the people who endorsed and worked very hard for George W. Bush, you will have people saying, 'If that's how they treat people who helped Governor Bush, I ain't going to help him.' This is a campaign in denial."

As for the argument that moving right will give Bush the nomination, it neglects to consider one little thing. This strategy basically assumes that Steve Forbes's supporters will flock to Bush. But the Forbes supporters were with Forbes because they hate Bush. In fact, they see both Bush and McCain as moderate, squishy Republicans. They won't be swayed by tacky appearances with Dan Quayle at Bob Jones University.

George Bush the Elder was a man who stood loyally by his retainers, allowing them to maintain their influence even when they were leading his campaign astray. Samuel Skinner, whom he hired as chief-of-staff after canning John Sununu in '92, failed to energize Bush to take on the woes of the economy. Robert Mosbacher was in charge of raising money for the campaign, but he attempted to run the whole thing. Fred Malek had a financial role in the campaign, yet became a campaign director. Says one former Bush-administration official: "That campaign was filled with chiefs and no Indians. Everyone wanted to be senior consultant and nobody worked after 5 p.m."

By all accounts, some of the same things are happening in the current Bush effort; only the personalities have changed. George W. Bush's campaign is so tied to Austin, it is said in political circles, that it's taking up half the buildings in the city.

Not everyone thinks that loyalty is excessive or misplaced, of course. "I know how President Bush first recruited a very capable group of people across the country," says Andrew Natsios, the Secretary of Administration and Finance under Governor Paul Cellucci and a member of President Bush's administration. "It does appear George W. Bush is doing the same thing, and ultimately that helps you get through a campaign and govern."

Other Bush allies point out that the candidate relies on a sweeping group of advisers, including such luminaries as Condoleeza Rice of Stanford, Paul Wolfowitz of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and former secretary of defense Richard Cheney. But sources close to Bush say he is careful to limit each policy adviser's role. If he asks someone about the proper approach to the European Union, he wants to hear advice about that subject and nothing more. All the political decisions are being controlled by the people in Austin. Says one Bush insider: "It's all being run out of the Texas mafia group."

To be sure, some Republicans are beginning to realize that things are much worse than any of Bush's people are willing to acknowledge. One Republican observer who is neutral in the race says it would be extremely difficult for Bush to win now. He points out that McCain will almost certainly win in South Carolina, and given the huge effort the Bush people have put into that state -- and the extent to which Bush himself has talked up his popularity there -- the magnitude of such a defeat cannot be overstated. Adds another Republican: "They don't fully appreciate the avalanche they're being swallowed by."

Jay Severin, a talk-show host at radio station WTKK and a conservative strategist, thinks things seem grim for Bush. "This looks like it might be the Hindenburg. The only thing the Bush campaign can do now is demonize McCain," says Severin, adding he's not convinced that any tweaking can solve the problem. "I think we may already have seen Bush at his best. Bush is a dope. If the conclusion of the elders of the campaign in Austin is that they have to let Bush be Bush, this would appear to be a contemporary version of hara-kiri."

The Bushes' loyalty may be one of the virtues that this clan can boast of. It places them in marked contrast to the man who vanquished President Bush: Bill Clinton, who never met a friend he couldn't cut loose at a moment's notice if it suited his political agenda. But George W. Bush's devotion to loyalty (both the loyalty he shows to others and the loyalty he demands from his advisers) may be his Achilles' heel now that he's in the political fight for his life. If Bush wants to withstand the McCain insurgency, he must do something quite difficult for a person of his stature: listen to things he does not want to hear. Otherwise, he'll end up just like his father in 1992.

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