The Bush Triangulation Strategy
Last week, House Republicans tried to postpone a fiscal squeeze by deferring payment of the Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income workers. Their presidential front-runner, George W. Bush, shot them down. "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," said Bush. Tuesday, speaking in New York about education reform, Bush spanked his party again, this time for projecting pessimism, indifference, and "disdain for government."
Bush's broadsides have filled the talk shows and front pages with speculation that he is "triangulating" against congressional Republicans, just as Bill Clinton "triangulated" against left-wing rap artist Sister Souljah in 1992 and against congressional liberals in 1995. But the media's one-dimensional understanding of triangulation--that Bush is trying to "distance himself from the GOP's right wing" and "stake out the middle ground" between two extremes--oversimplifies the game. Bush isn't positioning himself on a straight line between Clinton and the congressional GOP. He isn't even taking up a third position on their two-dimensional battlefield. He is venturing into a third dimension, rejecting the whole Washington debate, and defining his contest with Al Gore along a new axis. He is trying to render Gore's three-point campaign message obsolete.
1.The country is doing well. Clinton and Gore constantly recite statistics that reflect well on their administration: more jobs, lower deficits, lower interest rates, fewer people on welfare, less crime. They credit their own policies, particularly the 1993 tax hike, for achieving these results by establishing fiscal responsibility. For years, congressional Republicans predicted that Clinton's plan would ruin the economy. Then they defied credulity by reversing their message, claiming that the economy was in great shape and that their own policies were responsible for it.
This is the biggest obstacle facing Bush: He is challenging the incumbent vice president in a time of peace and prosperity, and the congressional GOP has not made a persuasive case either that the prosperity is false or that it is true because of Republican efforts in Washington. Clinton and Gore have spent seven years telling Americans the story of how their administration revived the economy. Whether or not this story is true, it is now deeply ingrained in the public consciousness, and Bush can't look to his party in Washington for an effective rebuttal to it.
Instead, Bush is attempting something far more bold and interesting: He is weaving an alternative story. While focusing on Bush's criticisms of his party in his speech Tuesday, the media overlooked the more important passage that preceded them. He said:
In state after state, we are seeing a profound shift of [educational] priorities. An "age of accountability" is starting to replace an era of low expectations. ... The principles of this movement are similar from New York to Florida, from Massachusetts to Michigan. ... At the beginning of the 1990s, so many of our nation's problems, from education to crime to welfare, seemed intractable. ... But something unexpected happened on the way to cultural decline. Problems that seemed inevitable proved to be reversible. They gave way to an optimistic, governing conservatism. Here in New York, Mayor Giuliani brought order and civility back to the streets--cutting crime rates by 50 percent. In Wisconsin, Gov. Tommy Thompson proved that welfare dependence could be reversed--reducing his rolls by 91 percent. Innovative mayors and governors followed their lead--cutting national welfare rolls by nearly half since 1994 and reducing the murder rate to the lowest point since 1967. Now education reform is gaining a critical mass of results. In the process, conservatism has become the creed of hope. The creed of aggressive, persistent reform. The creed of social progress.
What's important about this narrative is not what it says but what it doesn't say. It makes no mention of anything that happened in the White House or in Congress. Bush has decided that he can't win the federal policy debate that has consumed Clinton, Gore, Newt Gingrich, and the national media for seven years. So he has simply erased it. Yes, crime is down, fewer people are on welfare, and school reform is gaining momentum. And yes, the incumbent party deserves credit. But in Bush's story, that party isn't the Democratic White House. It's the state and local GOP.
2.Congress is petty and mean. Republican congressional leaders--Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay--have spent their tenure in the majority denouncing government, bickering with Clinton and the Democrats, impugning their integrity, and blaming them for every problem. They have convinced many people that Clinton and Gore are blameworthy. But they have convinced many others that congressional Republicans are more interested in impugning integrity and fixing blame than in solving problems. The negative portion of Gore's game plan, therefore, is to lump Bush together with Armey and DeLay as the party of carping and destructiveness.
Bush's game plan is to turn Gore's game plan on its head. He's not going to argue with Gore over which party is destructive or blameworthy. He's going to reject the whole Washington blame game--undercutting his own party as well as Gore--and portray himself as a man who solves problems instead of complaining about them or blaming them on his enemies. "Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself," Bush said Tuesday. "Our Founders rejected cynicism and cultivated a noble love of country. That love is undermined by sprawling, arrogant, aimless government. It is restored by focused and effective and energetic government. And that should be our goal: a limited government, respected for doing a few things and doing them well."
Some House Republicans, including DeLay, have fired back at Bush, accusing him of betraying them, meddling in their business, and distorting their ideas. This counterattack has only helped Bush achieve the distance he sought in the first place. Others, including Armey, have tried to spin Bush's comments, suggesting that he's really siding with them against Clinton in the Washington budget fight. They don't understand that they've lost that fight and that Bush is willing to repudiate the fight and everyone in it--including them--in order to ruin Gore's strategy and beat him.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.