Stop the presses!
George W. Bush has taken a position. This most extraordinary and rare turn of events followed the release of a House committee report alleging long-term Chinese espionage and the filching of just about every nuclear secret of the United States. Bush found the Clinton administration culpable, which, indeed, it seems to be. Other Republican presidential candidates said more or less the same thing.
This sign of political-intellectual activity in Austin is like getting a radio signal from outer space: Is there intelligent life out there? So far, the signs from Texas have not been encouraging. Where other candidates issue position papers, Bush essentially issues non-position ones.
This has been especially true on foreign policy. The Texas governor took his own sweet time to say what he thought about NATO's bombing of Kosovo which was, more or less, that he supported our fighting men and women. This falls a bit short of any Churchillian standard but it is better than continuing to insist that since this was not a matter before the Texas legislature, he would say nothing about it.
Similarly, Bush took no position on the gun control measure passed by the Senate. This bill, which had dominated the headlines and had stemmed from the shootings at Littleton, Colo., could not have taken Bush by surprise, yet he had nothing to say. What's more, you could make the argument -- not all that far-fetched, actually -- that there are both guns and high schools in Texas, and that the state's governor ought to have an opinion about a bill that affects both. Amazingly, Bush did not.
Bush also had nothing to say about hate-crime legislation, hardly an obscure issue. This is a pity, since hate-crime legislation is almost always a bad idea -- it's the crime, not the hate that should matter -- and it would have been good for Bush to speak out.
The irony, of course, is that the less Bush says, the more people seem to like him. He has become the virtual GOP presidential nominee by acclamation, endorsed by 16 of his fellow GOP governors and preferred by 51 percent of all Republicans in a recent Newsweek poll. This is an astounding figure when you consider the number of candidates in the race. A plurality is one thing, a majority is something else again.
What's more, the totally imaginary Bush beats the very real Al Gore in every poll you can name. Bush beats the vice president 51 to 42 in another Newsweek poll and even scores higher in voter confidence when it comes to foreign affairs. When you consider that Bush probably cannot spell half the countries that Gore has visited, it either goes to show that most Americans are idiots or -- as your mother may have told you -- silence is golden.
Sooner or later, of course, Silent George is going to have to talk. He is going to have to articulate his positions and explain what he means by "compassionate conservatism." More to the point, he might actually have to explain to some of his very conservative opponents what he meant when he said, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible."
For me, that is answer enough, but Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, Sen. Robert Smith and Alan Keyes, cultural conservatives all, might want some details. Are we talking drugs and, if so, what kind -- and, while we are at it, how young is young?
"I am not going to talk about what I did as a child," Bush recently told the Wall Street Journal. We may find that he had, as many men do, an extended childhood. Henry Hyde, you will recall, had a "youthful indiscretion" in his early forties.
What's extraordinary about Bush is the extent to which he is associated with no particular issue. He is the leader of no faction, and he would stump anyone on a word association test: Bush and . . . ? Nothing comes to mind.
The Bush camp evidently thinks that a good thing. They are wrong. When he finally does open his mouth, he is sure to disappoint some people. He will go from being an imaginary figure to a real politician. To compensate, he will need supporters who will stick with him no matter what -- the interest groups and committed ideologues who share something special with him. In Bush's case, it's hard to say what that will be. He stands for nothing other than winning -- and that, especially in the ideologically fractious primaries, can be a prescription for losing.