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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Step Right Up (October 1999)
Scott Stossel asks, What does the Reform Party's cast of odd characters suggest about the state of American politics? Think Fellini. Think David Lynch.

The Billionaire's Curse (September 1999)
Jack Beatty wonders why we should feel sorry for Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape and epitomizes "capitalism's hurricane of progress."

Sex and the Social Critic (August 1999)
Jack Beatty on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut -- and what the film's detractors failed to see.

Most Valuable Player (July 1999)
Jack Beatty on Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, a new book examining the economic impact of his Airness.

All the Presidents' Man (June 1999)
Jack Beatty reviews Name-Dropping, the new book by John Kenneth Galbraith, and recalls the days when liberals were cool. Seriously.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Is W. Inevitable?

It looks like George W. Bush has the nomination in the bag. Here's a scenario of how he could become a loser

by Christopher Caldwell

November 17, 1999

Never has a nonincumbent had such a firm lock on his party's presidential nomination so early. Republican favorite George W. Bush has seemed ill-informed on foreign policy, inarticulate on the economy, and shifty on his youthful libertinism, but he has never for a moment seemed like a loser. He has chased Republicans out of the race one by one. Kasich, Alexander, Quayle, Elizabeth Dole ... each of them threw up his or her hands at the impossibility of competing with Bush in fundraising. In our time, money and organization allow lackluster candidates like Walter Mondale and Bob Dole to coast to the nomination -- even when they're outperformed by their rivals. Bush is not a lackluster candidate, and he already has more money and organization than any primary candidate in history.

By the time Iowans and New Hampshirites cast their votes next January and February, the nomination game will already be in its seventh or eighth inning. It's too late for a dark-horse candidate to emerge. So to ask whether Bush can lose is to ask whether his closest rival, Arizona senator John McCain, can overtake him. Here's how it could happen.

The cash-strapped McCain operation has serious campaigns running in only four states: New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, and California. In Iowa, McCain isn't even competing. He claims he's doomed in advance by his principled stand against the ethanol subsidies on which Iowa's agribusiness giants depend. But the real reason he's sitting Iowa out is that the state's caucus system requires an elaborate latticework of county-level organization. McCain doesn't have the time, the manpower, or the money to build one.

McCain still hopes to emerge from Iowa strong. In his dream scenario, Steve Forbes will follow his 1996 anti-Dole strategy and hit the airwaves with millions of dollars' worth of attack ads on the front-runner Bush. Accusations of "negative campaigning" will put the final nails in Forbes's coffin -- but he will have already done his damage to Bush. McCain thus "wins" Iowa the way Pat Buchanan would have "won" World War II: by letting two unsympathetic giants tear each other apart. (Although early indications are that Forbes has learned his lesson from 1996 and is sticking to the high road.) Whatever happens, McCain will run strong in New England the following week. An American Research Group poll shows him trailing Bush by only three points in New Hampshire.

At this point, a sensible question is: So what? New Hampshire is only one state. Clinton didn't win it in 1992; Bush didn't win it in 1988. Besides, in the rest of the country, George W. Bush leads McCain either 65-9 or 57-12, depending on whether you believe The New York Times or Newsweek. Bush has about $40 million to throw into image-enhancing advertisements, compared with the $12 million or so McCain will have, once his matching funds arrive in January.

And yet McCain's advisers see daylight. "The Bush campaign is based on his inevitability," says one. He's right. Bush is the presumptive Republican favorite not because of anything he stands for, but because the party brass feels he can win. These savvy Bush Republicans -- like Clinton Democrats in 1992 -- realize they're trying to win with a discredited party. And just as Clintonites silenced hard-line Democrats on race and crime, Bushies are demanding that traditional Republicans bite their tongues -- on tax cuts, abortion, immigration, the minimum wage -- and let the public forget what the party has recently stood for. Only 61 percent of Bush supporters, according to one poll, can name any specific reason why they back their candidate -- and in many cases, the reason given is that he's the son of a President. If Bush wins in conservative New Hampshire, the strategy has worked, and the nomination is his. But as soon as he looks unelectable, he has lost everything. Or, as the McCain operative puts it, "Once he loses, he's not a winner."

The McCain idea is that a victory in New Hampshire will erode the entire logic behind Bush's nomination. Then Bush's real problems will come to the fore: (1) He's a wise-guy who swears a lot and snickers (in front of reporters!) at condemned killer Carla Faye Tucker's pleas for clemency. (2) He's testy, and recently snapped at a TV sound man in New Hampshire whom he suspected (bizarrely) of listening in on his conversations. (3) His mental caliber is now in question. It's not his inability to answer a TV pop quiz on world leaders as much as the media's perception -- implicit in that quiz -- that Bush's intellect is an issue. These factors raise the stakes of the three debates Bush has committed to over the next two months, and increase the likelihood of a Ford-liberating-Poland, Dukakis-in-a-tank stumble.

It's in the five relatively easy weeks after New Hampshire that the upset scenario plays itself out. Bush thinks gubernatorial support in Michigan (the primary is on February 22) and Virginia (February 29) gives him a "firewall" that will keep McCain from building momentum. (McCain's sponsorship of the omnibus anti-tobacco bill would alone be enough to doom him in Virginia.) But veterans and pro-lifers are behind McCain in South Carolina (February 19); he's now ahead in his home state of Arizona (February 22), and could win in Washington (February 29).

The nomination will be decided on March 7, with primaries in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maryland, and Ohio -- states that together control a third of the electoral votes in the country. McCain's goal is to reach March 7 even-steven. He's nowhere near that now, but a New Hampshire win, his supporters think, will unleash a variety of propitious -- and even now semi-predictable -- events.

Bush's advantage in fundraising (hence, advertising) becomes less lopsided. McCain gets a big infusion of cash, both from traditional winner-backing special interests, and via the Internet -- where McCain's campaign has outraised Bush's 4-to-1. Bush will retain money superiority, but what can he say in his ads? "I am not a lightweight"? Ads matter most when people know least; as a campaign develops, "free media" -- which is the name political consultants have for news -- matters more. Even an effective Bush advertising strategy could be countered by McCain's well-developed position on campaign-finance reform. If Bush "went nuclear" with tens of millions in TV ads in early primary states, McCain could point to the Bush ads themselves as the best evidence of the corrupting role of money in politics. Then McCain's signature issue would become the centerpiece not just of the primaries but also of the general-election campaign.

It could happen. But it's probably still a bit early for McCain to start shopping for office furniture.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Christopher Caldwell is senior writer at the Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press, and will appear in Politics & Prose once a month.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
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