PhiladelphiaGeorge W. Bush leaves Philadelphia with a double-digit lead over Al Gore in some polls and with his party more united than at any time since the glory days of Ronald Reagan. It is his election to lose. Here are some ways he could lose it.
ONE: Let Al Gore set the agenda. Liberal Democrats have long enjoyed the presumption that they have a divine right to government, and it is only their philosophy, goals, and methods that are legitimate. Mr. Bush cannot ignore Mr. Gore's proposals for improving our lives, but he can offer better ideas while refusing to dwell on Mr. Gore's. Mr. Bush must not fight on Democratic turf or he will lose. No one can out-promise, out-spend, or out-tax better than a liberal Democrat. So, Mr. Bush should respond quickly to misrepresentations of his record, but quickly articulate his own proposals and say why they are superior.
TWO: Let the media set the agenda (interchangeable with ONE). Former President Reagan's greatest skill was transcending the media. While Mr. Bush does not have the acting skills of Mr. Reagan (President Clinton does, but without the substance), Mr. Bush presents himself at a time when the public, exhausted by Clinton-Gore shenanigans, wants change. Voters won't tolerate a holier-than-thou campaign because, while cleanliness may be next to godliness, they don't believe most politicians are clean or godly. The Texas governor must find a way to connect directly with the public, answering media queries about his compassion and tolerance by putting the questioner on the spot; for example: "Is it compassionate to sentence an entire generation of African-American children to failed inner-city schools and rob them of their future, or is true compassion to empower parents to choose what is best for their children?"
THREE: Let government set the agenda. Assume that the only thing wrong with government programs is that they don't have enough money. Negotiate with Mr. Gore, not over whether a particular program or government agency ought to exist but with the level of its funding. Instead Mr. Bush should detail waste, fraud, and abuse (remember those $700 toilet seats in the Reagan years that Democrats used to great political effect?). Feature daily, or weekly, a new example of how the people's money has been misspent under Clinton-Gore. Continually remind voters whose money it is, and that government holds the money it obtains by the sweat of our brows in trust and has a responsibility to spend it wisely and give back what it does not legitimately need.
FOUR: Fail to say that we can do better. Mr. Bush should rather follow the lead of John F. Kennedy, who mostly declined direct attacks on war-hero Dwight Eisenhower. JFK simply said, "We can do better." Mr. Reagan's strength was his constant reminder that real power does not lie in government but within each American. He reminded us that right decisions by individuals are more powerful than wrong decisions made by bureaucrats. Mr. Reagan's optimism, which Democrats derided, was nothing more than the collective decisions of millions of us taking more responsibility (and receiving greater benefits) for our lives, rather than waiting for government to do something for us.
FIVE (a natural follow-up to FOUR): Fail to remind the people where real power comes from. Democrats are the party of bigger, costlier, and all-intrusive government. Mr. Bush should ask, "Who is better equipped to run and care for your life and your children's lives-you or government?" Government, like the oceans, is not bad in its place, but it can drown initiative when it is constantly in your face (and pocket). "Ask not what your country can do for you," Mr. Bush might again borrow from JFK, "ask what you can do for yourself if government gets out of the way."
So far, the Bush-Cheney team is doing everything right. Mr. Cheney was particularly direct and truthful in response to questions asked of him on the Sunday talk shows, a refreshing change from the rope-a-dope of the Clinton-Gore administration. But it's a long way to the finish line. If Bush-Cheney want to lose, they'll follow ONE to FIVE above.