After two full years of beating drums, blowing trumpets and waving torches in support of the inevitable presidential triumph of George W. Bush, it has suddenly begun to dawn on many in the American conservative community that Al Gore might very well be on the eve of kicking Bush’s butt. What we can learn from this is that many in the American conservative community have the political brains of a goldfish. Last weekend, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum held its national convention in Washington and unleashed the counsel that Gov. Bush “needs to articulate conservative positions” because “conservatives need to have a reason to work for him,” as one delegate put it. This week, National Review’s lead editorial whines that “the campaign is going badly for George W. Bush,” and insists that the Texas governor “will win it by making the public prefer a conservative to a liberal.”
To top it all off, The Weekly Standard, the neo-conservative analogue to National Review, sports as its cover article yet another pronouncement from its editor, Bill Kristol, this time on “How Bush Can Win.” Kristol’s answer is the same as that of National Review: “for starters, run as a conservative,” advises his article’s subheading.
That advice is especially sweet, considering how back in February, when Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain, Kristol pronounced yet again in The Washington Post that “leaderless, rudderless, and issueless, the conservative movement … is finished” and called for “a new governing agenda for a potential new political majority” that his hero of the week, McCain, was supposed to lead.
But if Bush really turns out to be the loser he seems to be, and if he really is losing in part because he’s failed to express conservative beliefs, the very conservatives who are now whimpering about the impending disaster have only themselves to blame. Most of them clambered onto the Bush bandwagon long before the current campaign; most would not hear of any other contender for the GOP nomination; most managed to fool themselves, and anyone dim enough to pay much attention to them, that the Texas governor really was a conservative. Now they’re astounded to learn that he offers even the milkish conservatism of the Beltway virtually nothing.
But why should he offer more? Having exploited the conservatives’ self-induced hysteria about Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Bush and his team of slickmeisters succeeded in making most conservatives think the real conservative principle consists simply in not being Bill Clinton or Al Gore. Bush didn’t have to lie to the right; it had already lied itself into believing he was the man who could and would bear its banner.
It’s quite true that Bush essentially settled the nomination with his victory over McCain in the South Carolina primary, and he did so by running well to the right of the Arizona senator. And it’s also true that Bush has stayed in the lead in this election mainly by keeping the support of white male voters, who form the backbone of Republican conservatism at the grassroots level.
But Gore, having secured his own political base among ethnic minorities (including a 20-point lead among the Hispanic voters whom Bush was ballyhooed as being able to win), is now penetrating even that GOP base. As the Washington Post reported last week, “Gore’s aggressive pursuit of a populism that pits the middle class against the elite, corporations and the wealthy has provided a way to counter his major liability among white men: their doubts about his strength and leadership.” The Post attributes to this tactic the vice president’s rise in polls in “the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio and Missouri that hold the balance of power in the 2000 election. Among all voters in each of these states,” Gore “is either fully competitive with, or slightly ahead of” Gov. Bush.
What Gore discovered is that class warfare works. His is essentially the same strategy, with a leftish twist, that won the White House for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as the “Southern strategy,” a battle plan that Bush and the current leaders of the Stupid Party have consciously and deliberately abandoned for the moronic scheme of trying to win non-whites instead.
If the Bush campaign fails, as now seems likely, the Beltway Right will fail along with it, and the class and ethnic lines of social and political conflict in this country will resume the shape they have had for the last quarter century. Not until they do will a real right be able to replace the phony one that has given us a phony conservative as a leader and now wonders why he doesn’t act and talk like a conservative at all.