Late Edition: The Morning After

A few impressions on the morning after Super Tuesday, if you please.

First, although something unforeseen may intrude before you read this, John McCain’s alternatives are now essentially three: (1) He can concede defeat, bury the hatchet somewhere else than in Governor’s Bush’s head, and rally ’round the Republican flag. (2) He can sulk in his tent like a spurned Achilles and plot—perhaps by means of a platform fight—diverse ways to thrust himself forcibly on a party the overwhelming majority of whose voters rejected him. (3) He can overdose on his infatuation with Teddy Roosevelt, convince himself that the people yearn for him, and run as a third-party candidate.

Stranger things have happened, but there is little in McCain’s demeanor to suggest that the first option will tempt him for very long, at least not now. The second and third options, alone or in combination, seem to fit his temperament, but their chief effect will be to injure or destroy Bush’s candidacy.

Second, McCain’s “reform” agenda is a bumper sticker without the bumper or, for that matter, the car. Beyond invoking his misbegotten and blatantly unconstitutional campaign finance legislation, the senator has had precious little to say about reforming much of anything. Indeed, he gives slight evidence that he has thought very deeply about what ails government or how to cure it. He sloganizes about cracking “the iron triangle,” but outside the liberal media and other self-appointed nannies of “the public interest,” no serious student of politics believes that the McCain-Feingold bill will make the slightest dent in its hypotenuse.

The primaries confirm that Bush still has a thing or two to learn about Catholics. This is not altogether his fault, given the collateral damage inflicted by McCain’s “Catholic Voter Alert” nastiness.

Significantly, the more voters listened to McCain’s message, the more they preferred Bush. If McCain thinks the electorate is poised on the edge of its chair for campaign-finance reform, he possesses knowledge of the electorate not vouchsafed to the rest of us. Case in point: the defeat in California, by a 2-1 margin, of a proposition that would have banned corporate contributions, imposed contribution limits, and provided free TV and radio for candidates who agree to voluntary spending limits. If you can’t sell campaign reform in California, you can’t sell it anywhere. Let McCain prattle with Russ Feingold, the Reform Party, and TV’s talking heads, but if the GOP buys into electoral reform of the sort favored by these folks, it will and ought to lose.

Third, Governor Bush has got to give the public two or three snappy reasons for supporting his candidacy. “Compassionate conservatism” and “reform with results” won’t do it, though there is nothing inherently wrong with the content of either message. Detailed white papers and substantive policy proposal won’t do it either, no matter how good they are (and in Bush’s case, they are quite good indeed). There may be a “reform” constituency out there somewhere, but at the moment it is inchoate, temperamental, and ideologically promiscuous. A case can be made that it is little more than a desire to change the status quo, which is why Governor Bush has got to convince the public that he’s the sort of fella who can shake things up and throw the rascals out.

He might begin by demonstrating, instead of talking about, leadership. If nothing else, McCain’s candidacy confirms that people are yearning for it and want to see it in the flesh. When Ronald Reagan grabbed that microphone in New Hampshire in 1980, the people knew he had the right stuff. Bush should watch the reruns until he gets the point.

Fourth, the primaries confirm that Bush still has a thing or two to learn about Catholics. This is not altogether his fault, given the collateral damage inflicted by McCain’s “Catholic Voter Alert” nastiness. But Bush needs to address this shortcoming, and fast. His father, a far, far better man than his opponent in 1992, was utterly tone-deaf to the music that resonates in Catholic ears, and the governor exhibits a similar, though not irreparable, tendency.

Bush’s number-crunchers are acutely aware of the importance of Catholic voters this fall. But computer analyses can’t help unless the candidate himself understands who these folks are and focuses on that part of the decidedly un-monolithic Catholic vote most disposed to rally ’round a morally conservative message. Chatting it up with a popular bishop or two is fine, but it is a characteristically naive outsider’s assumption that bishops carry much sway with Catholics in matters electoral. They don’t.

Bush needs to develop a rhetoric that stirs the folks in the pews, and if he can’t rouse them against Al Gore and his policies, he ought to find another line of work. A couple of good speeches setting forth basic themes ought to be developed for selected venues, then reiterated again and again in abridged form and sound bites as occasion requires. All this by way of preparing the ground for, say, a rip-snorter that gets them up on their chairs at the Knights of Columbus convention next summer. The gurus in Austin ought to think about it.

  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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