George W. Bush has found a new opponent in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination: Washington.
Increasingly on the stump and in campaign commercials, the Texas governor presents an anti-Washington, outsider image. It's a message that his campaign believes will appeal to the conservative activists who will vote in Monday's caucuses here and New Hampshire's primary next week.
Bush's inveighing against the inside-the-Beltway crowd came as a surprise: He spent much of last year imploring his party to tone down the anti-government rhetoric. And, running against Washington has not been as effective for Republicans since they took over Congress in 1994.
But Bush's closest rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has prospered in this election in part by being perceived as the candidate who can shake up Washington. Bush now tries to remind voters that he, not McCain, is the outsider--or, like Ronald Reagan, a popular governor from out West. McCain, according to Bush, is a typical Washington insider who will squander tax dollars best put back in the hands of taxpayers.
"You mark my words: You leave money sitting around the table in Washington--Washington politicians will spend it," Bush says in an ad running in New Hampshire. Another ad begins: "My opponent trusts the people of Washington to spend money." Bush even has Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a Washington insider himself, vouching for Bush's outsiderness in a new ad: "His ideas are bold. Now some say Bush's plan to cut taxes is too much. They believe if you leave money in Washington, it will not get spent. We know better."
Before cheering supporters in Ottumwa, Iowa, Thursday night, Bush said that if tax money "goes to Washington, it will go to creating more government. . . . If it is given to the people, it will go to grow the economy." Later, Bush likened McCain to a politician who backtracks from his ideas when challenged--qualities Bush attributes to the "Washington mind-set."
Asked earlier this week if he had "gone negative" against McCain, Bush responded that he was only trying to pin down the senator on his ever-changing tax plan. "It changed," Bush said. Then, seeming to mock the lawmaker, he added: "And evidently this may be another amendment thereto. Sounds like a Senate subcommittee. We're going to amend. Do I hear a motion for an amendment? And do I hear a second? And so we're trying to find out what the facts are."
That kind of sharp rhetoric was largely absent from Bush's campaign last year, as he tried to avoid even criticizing President Clinton and the Democrats. Implicit in Bush's campaign from the beginning has been that as one of the popular GOP governors, he is different from the unpopular Republicans who run Congress. And while he has always promoted small but focused federal government bureaucracy, last year he was careful not to demonize the federal government and criticized his party for often seeming to do so.
"There is another destructive mind-set," he seemed to admonish his party in his first major policy speech in Indianapolis in July, "the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved--an approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than 'Leave us alone.' "
In October, he told a conservative think tank in New York: "Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself. But this is not an option for conservatives. At the constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin argued that the strength of our nation depends on the general opinion of the goodness of government."
Bush has been consistent in arguing for smaller government and lower taxes (although he barely mentioned taxes in stump speeches last year). In fact, the next part of the above statement was: "That love is undermined by sprawling, arrogant, aimless government. It is restored by focused and effective and energetic government."
The difference this year is that he leaves out commentary on the "goodness of government" in his campaign speech, focusing instead on the recklessness and irresponsibility of Washington.
Fred Antcvak, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Iowa, said Bush was responding to the forces of the nominating system, which require GOP candidates to plunge to the right before moving back to the middle in the general election. "I call it activation rhetoric," Antcvak said of Bush's efforts to motivate his supporters in a state where only about one in 10 voters are expected to participate in Monday's caucuses.
Bush, however, started by running to the middle, then moved to the right as the first caucuses and primaries approached. He likely will move back toward the middle--at least in his rhetorical appeal to nontraditional GOP constituencies--if he wins the nomination, Antcvak predicted. The party's conservative base embraced Bush's effort to wrap conservative policies in moderate rhetoric last year because many believed he was attracting women and minorities. But the campaign's goal has clearly shifted to motivating conservative activists in small states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where a few thousand votes can make a difference.
Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer acknowledged the importance of pushing Bush's outsider message. Voters, he said, will be compelled by the contrast of Bush's executive experience outside of Washington and McCain's legislative experience inside the Beltway. "It's very common in the legislature for people to take stands that never get enacted to law, but are interesting stands to take," Fleischer said. "You can't do that as a governor. You are judged by the bottom line: What did you get done?"
The McCain campaign, which has accused Bush of breaking his promise to avoid negative campaigning, scoffs at the notion of Bush the outsider. "The problem with that is, he's trying to run as something he's not," McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky said. "After a year of campaigning as the ultimate establishment candidate with all of the K Street lobbyists and Washington special interests on his side, he's now decided that he's just a lowly governor from Austin. You can't have it both ways. He stood on the steps of the Capitol with over 100 members of Congress behind him."
But for now, said Jack Pitney, an associate professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, Bush's anti-Washington message could be potent with voters he needs to attract in the early states. "It doesn't have as much punch as it did a few years ago when the Democrats were running Congress, but it still has some punch because it sounds like Ronald Reagan," Pitney said. "He's trying to sound like Reagan, it seems, and not his father," who was considered by many voters to be a creature of Washington."