WE ALL HAD one of those toys when we were little. You remember: that circular toy where you point the arrow in the middle, pull the string, and the toy would play back a brief sound clip from a nursery rhyme or children's song. It was a lot of fun to hear "Old McDonald had a farm," and "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall," when we were little kids, but eventually it got old.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) has adopted this strategy in his own presidential campaign.
Since he began his fund raising crusade last spring, Bush enchanted audiences with the repeated use of catchphrases like "compassionate conservatism" and "prosperity with a purpose." These ideas, as empty as they are, worked well with both political donors and the popular opinion. It seemed that as long as Bush never had to present an actual idea, his poll numbers would soar.
Bush's attempts at disguising himself as a centrist have come crashing down as he moves to the right. Compared to a straight-talking, forthright candidate like Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), Bush's catchphrase act has grown quite stale.
The recent troubles in the Texan's campaign are a refreshing sign that Americans are not as easily duped as he previously believed. The core problem with Bush's candidacy is that he has overstepped his "moderate" persona of earlier months to gain favor with the right wing.
This chameleon-like strategy -- one day a moderate, an ultraconservative the
next -- does Bush no credit. He needs to choose one path and follow it through the rest of his campaign if he wants to redeem any credibility in voters' eyes. This "compassionate conservative" act isn't fooling anyone.
One of the quirks of American presidential campaigns is the fact that candidates simultaneously must campaign on a state and a national level. While they have to appeal to local voters' interests in each state's "microcampaign," they cannot risk saying anything too inflammatory that would jeopardize their chances in the national "macrocampaign" during the second half of the year. It is a tightrope that all candidates have to walk. Only the very best ones can get through it without falling off. Unfortunately, the end result of this microcampaigning is that pandering to local interests overshadows everything else.
Bush appears to have lost track of this rule during his South Carolina campaign. To be fair, he shouldn't bear all the blame. After all, South Carolina, home of centenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) and the Confederate flag-bearing statehouse, is more of an anomaly compared to most other states. Bush's behavior in the Palmetto state, however, has done nothing but highlight the hypocrisies in his rhetoric.
During his campaign in South Carolina, Bush has criticized McCain for supporting trigger locks on guns. That's fine for Bush to say down South. Gun control is not popular in many parts of the region. But once the campaign heads north and west to states like New York and California, Bush will have to tone down his love affair with the National Rifle Association, or he can kiss those states goodbye. Bush likely will backtrack a bit on this issue as his campaign leaves the South, and the end result will be a candidate who only tells people what they want to hear, or rather avoids discussing what people don't want to hear.
The same could be said for Bush's visit to Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. That school, with its prohibition of inter-racial dating, is not the type of voter support Bush will need in November if he wants to win. This is not to imply that Bush should abandon his conservative base altogether. Obviously, if he wants to win, he'll need every vote from that side that he can get.
The problem with Bush's campaign thus far is his propensity to try and walk both sides of the fence, depending on which state he is in, or which audience he is trying to appeal to at the moment.
In an era where people, especially young adults, are increasingly turned off to public life, Bush is not doing anything to help the problem. He continues to spout the same right-wing rhetoric -- rhetoric that will not win him any elections if it remains the same through November. If he wants to shed his right-wing reputation and regain credibility in the eyes of mainstream voters, he will have to start mimicking the more honest approach of Sen. McCain. The electorate is not as blind as Bush may believe. If he wants to save his floundering quest for the presidency, he must take a page from McCain's book, and begin addressing us in a more straightforward fashion.
(Tim DuBoff's column appears Fridays inThe Cavalier Daily.)