AIKEN, S.C.-An effective campaign always breeds copycats. That's why John McCain is to blame for his assiduous imitator, the new George W. Bush.
The old George W. passed lazy afternoons posing for photo-ops. The new, McCainine George W. spends 16-hour days in "One-on-One" sessions--this is what his people inaccurately call their adaptation of McCain's town meetings. Instead of taking a few questions at the end of a rote stump speech, the podiumless Bush now mixes it up with the audience, letting the questions go on and on, and occasionally even challenging the premise of one of them. Where he used to treat reporters like carriers of the Ebola virus, the new George W. now kids around with the press and provides a modicum of journalistic access. And where he once dismissed McCain's interest in campaign-finance reform as a treasonous attempt to aid the Democrats, Bush now touts his own version of it.
As with Al Gore last fall, the mere effort to take a floundering campaign in hand and do something, anything differently seems to be helping somewhat. Bush appears to be getting traction, as the consultants say. But Bush's new pose feels awkward and artificial nonetheless. Spontaneity and candor don't work for him the way they do for McCain because Bush isn't a naturally spontaneous or candid politician. He lacks the self-confidence, the intellectual suppleness, and the appetite for risk that allow McCain to run in his idiosyncratic, freewheeling way.
The new Bush is like your CD player set on "random." He plays all the same songs you've heard before, only in an unfamiliar order. Bush begins a One-on-One with a speech that has most of his familiar lines, but without the familiar structure. He goes on about how much he loves his wife and daughters. He says he's a uniter, not a divider. He says he wants to rally the "armies of compassion" to help "people who live on the outskirts of poverty" escape "the bigotry of low expectations." During the extended question period, Bush repeats the same bromides over and over. The other innovation is that, like the new Gore, the new, pumped-up Bush shouts a lot. "I'm not for things that are against people, I'm for things that are for people!" he explained helpfully at his first One-on-One this morning, in a yacht-filled basin called Shelter Cove Harbor.
Another sample: "I believe that one of the great freedoms in America is the freedom of speech. The freedom of speech!"
Another: "It's important for parents to pay attention to the children!
Another: "What a leader learns to do is earn political capital. And that's important to understand what that means. It's the will of the people! That's what that is. And I've been in a position to earn the will of the people in my state. And I'm telling ya, it's reality.
Another: "A good leader is somebody who's able to do something. And I've gotta have a message that's able to stand the test of time! That's what campaigns are all about!"
John McCain can be a demagogue. He can be falsely modest. His jokes can grow weary. He can be spectacularly clueless on domestic policy. But I've never heard McCain talk pure and utter gibberish the way Bush does about half the time he has his mouth open.
On campaign-finance reform, Bush's attempt to steal McCain's clothes is even more brazen and preposterous. His hastily assembled, six-point plan is a kind of bill of attainder designed with the sole purpose of depicting his rival as a hypocrite. One plank is a ban on fund raising from lobbyists while Congress is in session--a proposal that is more loophole than reform and that exists only to underscore the point that McCain raises money from lobbyists with business before his committee. Another part of Bush's plan would forbid candidates from "rolling over" collected funds to a campaign for a different office--a practice that is objectionable only insofar as John McCain happens to have done it. Tellingly, Bush has articulated no particular reason for coming around on campaign-finance reform. It's just something that seems to be working for the other guy.