Guilt-trip politics

One possible explanation for the rise of George W. Bush

Issue: "Top 40 Books," July 3, 1999

Since everyone else seems to have a theory about why George W. Bush of Texas has leapt to such an improbable (if informal and pretty meaningless) lead in the early race for the Republican presidential nomination, here's mine:

Most of us think and vote with our emotions instead of with our minds.

That's not meant as a put-down of the Texas governor. Once he gives us a good bit more to process with our brains, many of us might still conclude he's an outstanding prospect for the presidency. So far, of course, he's only hinted at where he stands on a number of key matters. On some issues, like abortion, he has so far played his cards a little too close to the chest.

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But especially with that relative mushiness of outlook in mind, there's got to be some good explanation for the fact that "W" regularly doubles the numbers of his closest competitors. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that W's father's loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 weighs just heavily enough on enough voters' consciences that a big number of them are now responding by saying: "It's payback time for the Bush family. It's time to make things right."

Admittedly, that's not much more than conjecture. But who among us, reflecting on some really dumb thing we've done in the past, and now handed a great opportunity to make moral amends without losing face for our dumbness in the process, doesn't leap at the chance?

This is hardly the same response, mind you, summarized in the widely displayed bumper sticker that says, "Don't blame me; I voted for Bush." It is, in fact, a form of redemption for exactly the opposite crowd-those for whom both common sense and tradition said six-and-a-half years ago that they should be safe and vote for George H. W. Bush, but whose sense of daring prompted them to do otherwise.

You probably know some folks like that. I have a hunch that most of the Clinton voters among WORLD's readership (yes, there are some) are people who dissented from Mr. Clinton's most unprincipled positions, but who nonetheless don't like being taken for granted by an often flaky GOP. So just to demonstrate that they're independent folk, they throw caution to the winds and take a gander as they head for the polls. For them, in an odd sort of way, winning isn't nearly as important as demonstrating some sort of principle. The same thing might also be said of people who voted for Ross Perot in 1992-and many of them too carry a little load of guilt that a vote for "W" next year might help alleviate.

The principle these folks seem to value most is a certain sort of independence, the right to be their own people. If they consider themselves party people (and this applies to huge numbers of Democrats as well as to Republicans), such party loyalty is minimal at best. It vanishes in the face of any other attractive options or when party leaders seem to desert the distinctives that made party association valuable and attractive in the first place.

That happened wholesale in 1992. While Republicans diluted their own distinctives, offering a candidate (the other Bush) who during his own presidency hadn't seemed terribly sure of what he believed, the Democrats came along with someone a centrist could justify voting for.

My theory may seem to wobble a bit in terms of explaining the 1996 election, by which time voters should have begun to see what an awful bargain they had bought into. But don't forget: The Republican candidate this time, Robert Dole, had no more vigorous a profile in terms of the issues than Mr. Bush had offered four years earlier. So once more, voters found it easy to justify themselves as they jumped ship by the millions.

By now, however, the president's shenanigans have taken their toll. Throughout the electorate, plenty of decent folks still defend themselves in public for what they did the last two times around, but are silently kicking themselves for being so gullible. Human nature being what it is keeps most folks from admitting it right out-but hey, give them one more nice quiet chance to do what's right, and this time they'll take it.

It doesn't hurt at all that W looks a lot like his father, and sounds like him as well. Such are the subliminal reminders to lots of voters that warn not so quietly: "Don't make the same mistake a third time." And oddly, out of the huge herd of nearly a dozen Republican prospects, the Texas governor-without having done a solitary thing to earn it other than to be the other George's son-is the only candidate who can cash in on this particular benefit.

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