George W. Bush came to town this week, and congressional Republicans swooned. He gets raves from all. It's different for Al Gore. He gets advice--some solicited, some not. Bush was enfolded in smiles and praise. His way to the Senate Foreign Relations hearing room, where he met with GOP senators, was dotted with clumps of sightseers straining for a glimpse of him. Inside, there was rapture. Even Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a late and baffling entry into the crowded Republican field of presidential candidates, said when asked if he was for Bush: "I certainly am."
Afterward, two conservative senators explained why Bush's brief, standup session had been so rewarding.
Said Idaho's Larry Craig, "He told us that the question he is most frequently asked is this: 'If you are elected, will you restore dignity and honor to the presidency?' He promises that he will." Craig thinks that Americans are hungry for decorum and fidelity in the Oval Office.
Bill Frist of Tennessee was taken with "the juxtaposition of self-confidence and humility--he is very sure of himself but he is genuinely humble, too. He told us he never expected to be in a room with 20 senators urging him to seek the presidency."
House Republicans, who already include 125 declared Bush supporters, seemed similarly carried away. The usually self-possessed Jennifer Dunn of Washington state did not hesitate to use the M-word. "He's really got the magic," she gushed.
To see that kind of adulation on display, you had to go to Kosovo and watch grateful refugees cheering President Clinton. But that's far from Washington, where Republicans are still arguing about who won the Balkan war.
Gore among the Democrats is a different story. They know him better than the Republicans know Bush, and they like him more. But Gore is lagging in the polls, and there is even an inexplicable and troubling gender gap. Women, who were part of the base that clung to Clinton during the dark days of impeachment and who are supposedly endlessly grateful to Democrats for their stance on women's issues, seem susceptible to gorgeous George, the pro-life Texas governor. Among female voters in the most recent Washington Post-ABC poll, Bush has an 11-percentage point lead over Gore.
It's open season on Gore. Anyone can play. Clinton called up the New York Times last month to get in his two cents' worth about the inadequacy of Gore's campaign style. Other Democrats grumble that Gore campaign chief Tony Coelho, who resigned from the House amid questions about financial deals, highlights the campaign contributions problem. They complain about Gore's inner circle of advisers, portrayed in a recent Post story as Washington insiders--high-powered, high-income lobbyists with many special interests.
None of this is helpful if the voters are in a mood for ethical cleansing and a fresh start.
In response to the chorus, Gore arranged with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to have a series of meetings with old pals in Congress. But even that generated new boos. Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii groused to Gore during a Flag Day barbecue at the vice-presidential manor that his staff members were not good listeners. Abercrombie said the Gore people "never shut up" and talked so long about what they were doing that there was hardly any time for them to get congressional input on what Gore should be doing.
Gore may have gotten the best advice from Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor, a free spirit who voted for Clinton's impeachment. "When you talk about the environment," he counseled, "don't talk about eagles, talk about people."
The sub-theme of the Bush drive has begun to emerge. He's going to wage a moral crusade. He is going to go hard on family values and personal responsibility.
Gore's personal life has been impeccable; there has not been a whisper of trouble between him and his wife Tipper.
But Bush is talking about public morality. While Gore defends abortion rights, Bush is preaching abstinence. Bush's talk of a spiritual revival fits in with another GOP theme--restoration of the Bush dynasty to its rightful place on the American political scene. In retrospect, the Bush presidency has become extraordinary, and Bush the younger is Bonnie Prince Charlie, bringing it all back.
Republicans are ecstatic about the turn of events. They believe that family values is what they are all about. And spiritual renewal costs nothing beyond the price of allowing the Ten Commandments to be posted in classrooms. The Republicans have in another contender, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a genuine reformer, an enemy of Big Tobacco, a friend of campaign reform. He's getting nowhere.
The emphasis on virtue could bring renewed pressure on Bush to tell more about his admitted youthful transgressions. Gore has already confessed he smoked marijuana in the '60s, an era that Bush is obviously running against.