Viewpoint: Why Does Bush Win?

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As my colleague Eric O'Keefe says, the presidential campaign is just the opposite of the Olympics; television commentators kept saying of the hard-working young Olympians, "If only they could all win." With the campaign, one wishes they could all lose.

Still, the most gratifying aspect of the campaign is the voters' good judgment in deciding whom to toss out first. The tax increasers, the protectionists, and the crackpopulists—those who appeal to ignorant voters with crackpot economic schemes—have mostly been shown the door.

The crafty denizens of Iowa served the nation well by thrusting Rep. Richard Gephardt, Sen. Bob Dole, and I-am-not-an-evangelist Pat Robertson into the limelight. Gephardt's populism of privilege—government favors for farmers and inefficient companies threatened by foreign competition—played well in the Iowa caucuses. But his xenophobic nationalism bombed in New Hampshire and even in the Carolinas, home of the hard-pressed textile industry. Robertson likewise turned out organized voters in Iowa but faded badly in every primary. His army, we now see, was invisible largely because it was tiny.

Dole's collapse was perhaps the biggest surprise. For eight years, every time Dole shepherded a tax hike through Congress, the media hailed his statesmanship. This laudatory attention, plus his status as a midwestern neighbor, won him a victory in Iowa. But George Bush hit back, accusing Dole of being a tax increaser—conveniently forgetting that the Reagan-Bush administration had ultimately backed all of Dole's tax hikes. During a televised debate in New Hampshire, Pete du Pont handed Dole a pledge not to raise taxes and asked him to sign it. Dole refused. A few days later he suffered a defeat from which he never recovered.

On the Democratic side, all the candidates are itching to raise taxes, but only one made his lust explicit. Bruce Babbitt asked Americans to stand up for tax increases. The voters told him to sit down.

It's true that two antitax candidates—du Pont and Rep. Jack Kemp—also bowed out early. But neither Kemp nor du Pont offered a clear and consistent message. Kemp's enthusiastic support for tax reduction was combined with an equally vigorous defense of the Social Security system and the welfare state generally.

Du Pont stressed education tax credits, an end to farm subsidies, and a private alternative to Social Security, issues that should have had great appeal to young voters. But he threw away his chance with his antidrug crusade.

In fact, no candidate in either party has really offered the voters a vision for the future except Jesse Jackson. His is a crack-populist vision if ever there was one, but it has a wide enough appeal to strike fear in the Democratic establishment.

As for the other remaining candidates, Gov. Michael Dukakis boasts of the Massachusetts miracle and says he can do the same for the rest of the country. But that would happen only if someone else cut taxes over his objections—the real source of the recent growth in his home state.

Sen. Al Gore is the real Max Headroom of American politics—a computer-generated candidate who tried out three messages in six months and is working up a new one. His campaign is being kept on life-support systems by journalists who don't want to admit that the real race is now between the uninspiring Dukakis and the unelectable Jackson.

And what of George Bush, who surprised a lot of us by emerging as a real frontrunner? He certainly has no vision and has never been identified with a clear set of principles or policies. Yet in this campaign he has enunciated some fairly clear stands. He pledges not to increase taxes, to cut the capital gains tax, and to back a taxpayer's bill of rights. He used the tax increase issue effectively against Dole, and campaigning in Milwaukee, when he was invited to visit the local IRS office, he declined, saying he wanted to "stay away from the IRS, like your basic average American."

Bush also speaks regularly of the need for tolerance, a word rarely heard in Republican speeches, and he has vigorously defended the INF treaty, calling it "good for my grandchildren and good for the whole world." In fact, the profile he has put together is arguably just the one to appeal to baby-boom voters.

And yet…it's just hard to believe Bush when he takes firm stands. Bush comes across as sort of a third carbon copy of the candidate one would like to see, a candidate who would speak out forcefully for tax reduction and smaller government, social tolerance, and arms control.

Indeed, if a candidate had campaigned on those themes—which we might sum up as peace and free enterprise—he or she might have done very well. As it happened, the candidate who came closest, Bush, has gained the clearest victory. But baby boomers are still waiting for a real peace and free-enterprise candidate.

David Boaz is vice-president of the Cato Institute.

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