People who pursue the fox of enlightenment -- or even just the rabbit of entertainment -- through the brambles of journalism were rewarded recently by a report from congested Iowa. It seems that the George Bush campaign has adopted a carefully calibrated plan of tactical blandness.
Now, making Bush bland is not a challenge comparable to climbing Annapurna, but the reasons for the blandification are illuminating, especially when helpfully explained by a member of the Bush braintrust using hearty football lingo.
One of Bush's handlers, commenting admiringly on the dullness of Bush's speeches, says: "We're moving the ball on the ground just fine. Unless they make us put it in the air, why do it? Everytime you take a position, you know you'll make someone angry."
That football thought has a distinguished pedigree. Every real American knows that when Woody Hayes was Ohio State's football coach, he regarded the forward pass as a sin as scarlet as liberalism. His teams ground out yards on the ground. His philosophy was "three yards and a cloud of dust." Bush's doctrine for our troubled times is "three yards and a cloud of fog." Or as a coach once said, "I have nothing to say and I'm only going to say it once."
A no-damned-nonsense-about-ideas approach is an understandable temptation for a front-runner, and is to some extent an occupational necessity for a vice president. Regarding the latter, Bush's comportment in that inherently awkward office has earned admiration for the decorum and self-denial he has shown.
But by now Bush has earned the right to assert, with the delicacy he has hitherto shown in his reticence, an independent political existence. He should speak less blandly. And his aides should speak less.
They especially should shut up about a strategy of running out the clock, a strategy known in sports parlance as sitting on a lead. The danger of it, for a team or campaign, is of losing momentum, sometimes called The Big Mo. Then the team or campaign is, as the vice president says, in deep do-do.
Already derision is heard from rivals, such as Pete duPont, the former governor of Delaware, mother state of presidential candidates. (With DuPont and Sen. Biden, Delaware has a candidate for every 310,000 residents, a record ratio.) DuPont once was an indigo horse but has risen rapidly and now is only mildly dark. He says Bush is hiding in a "cocoon."
Paul Laxalt, also a candidate, says DuPont's criticism is naughty because it violates the 11th Commandment (Moses was a Democrat), "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican." But DuPont has earned the right to twit a candidate like Bush who is, as economists say, risk-aversive. DuPont has the highest substance-to-blather ratio among candidates, even on subjects as sensitive as agriculture policy and Social Security.
Steven Wright, a comedian, jokes about experiencing amnesia and de'ja` vu simultaneously. For Bush supporters, that is no laughing matter. Reagan's 1984 "It's morning in America" campaign was a cotton-candy campaign, gooey and substanceless. It won him a second term, but did not -- could not -- win him a mandate. Hence his second term lacked The Big Mo. There is no reason to believe the electorate craves a cotton-candy campaign from Bush.
Republicans who would like a candidate who does not believe in tactical blandness, a candidate who takes six positions before breakfast, may only have to wait until September to find her.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is about to go, as is her summer custom, to the south of France, there to complete a book on foreign policy. (A book chock-full of positions that will make someone angry. Some true-blue Bushies must blanch at the thought.) When she returns, she will consider entering the race. If she does, the day she does she will become the intensity front-runner -- the candidate with the largest number of passionate supporters.
Bush's principal problem is measured by what pollsters call the "anybody but Jesus" question. The question is, approximately, this: Would you support your candidate against anybody but Jesus? The question measures the quality of a candidate's support.
When it is posed to Bush supporters, it reveals something that causes some experts to doubt that Bush will make it beyond New Hampshire: Bush has a remarkable intensity-deficit. That is a natural consequence of sitting on a lead lest someone get angry.