The governors' club

The Republican Governor's Association rallies around George W. Bush after his humiliating New Hampshire defeat.

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party

It’s an ugly stereotype, but a most unpleasant image comes to mind in the wake of George W. Bush’s crushing defeat in New Hampshire: What if, after everything is piled away, he is little more than the quintessential Republican trust-fund baby? Wealthy, happy-go-lucky, entitled, successful through “old-boy network” connections and, if the going gets tough, able to depend on Mom and Dad (or their friends) to pop up and save the day.

Unfair? Yes. But the Republican establishment — as evidenced by the activities of GOP governors — is helping reinforce that stereotype.

Following Bush’s disastrous New Hampshire showing, the Republican Governor’s Association jumped into action. In a statement issued Wednesday titled “Republican Governors React to New Hampshire’s GOP Primary,” nine GOP state chief executives were quoted “explaining” Bush’s loss, while also lauding the Texas governor’s many virtues in the areas of tax reduction and education reform.

The RGA is a fully sanctioned, yet largely autonomous, arm of the Republican Party. Its mission is to raise money and win elections for Republican gubernatorial candidates. In November, the RGA became, for all practical purposes, a Washington-based extension of the George W. Bush for President campaign. RGA spokeswoman Kirsten Fedewa points to the broad depth of support for Bush, noting that 29 of the 30 Republican governors have endorsed the Texan. (New Mexico’s Gary Johnson was apparently the lone hold-out.)

“The governors believe George W. Bush is the best candidate and that he will be the nominee,” Fedewa said. And how will they deliver their states to Bush? “These governors have been doing the same things in their states. They’ll echo his message on taxes and education; they will use the state bully pulpit and have the political organization to back it up. They are formidable.”

Legally there is nothing wrong with this kind of all-out organizational support. But ethically? Consider: Like other such party organizations, the RGA raises money from Republicans across the country. Thus, it is entirely possible that a Republican contributor in, say, New Hampshire, has responded to a previous RGA entreaty and sent in money. That same Republican could have turned around and voted Tuesday for John McCain — and then had part of his own contribution pay for a press release promoting Bush and dismissing that voter’s own views and actions.

What should be disturbing for rank-and-file Republicans, however, is the arrogant sense of entitlement implied by these actions. In the release, Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci pointed out that in the “early contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Delaware, South Carolina — none of them have Republican governors. We have 25 Republican governors around this country who have their political organizations ready to go to work for George W. Bush. It’s the firewall of firewalls. We’re ready.” In other words, the views and votes of Republicans who aren’t fortunate enough to live in Republican-governed states — well, they don’t really count, do they? And Republicans who do live under a GOP governor? Goodness knows what might happen to someone who disobeys the orders from on high and dares to vote for a candidate other than Bush.

The ramifications of this could be as bad for the party as they are for Bush. In trying to protect “Dubya,” the governors demonstrate that they have no qualms about using Republican contributor funds to help defeat all non-Bush candidates. Such an action would hardly have the party standing on a moral high ground come the fall facing an ethically challenged Al Gore.

The RGA action is manna from heaven for the insurgent McCain camp. “The fact that George W. Bush is the candidate of the Republican establishment is further proof that he is out of touch with the voters of America who have responded in New Hampshire and are responding in South Carolina to the McCain message of conservative independent reform. Our campaign is all about the battle of ideas, not the battle of bucks,” said McCain spokeswoman Nancy Ives. Thursday, the Zogby Intl. poll (the one Republicans tend to point to as the most accurate) came out with McCain in the lead.

Prior to New Hampshire — prior to any vote being cast anywhere — the Bush campaign presented two messages: 1) He can win; 2) He’s got money. Each message reinforced the other. Bush was able to raise an exorbitant amount of money because it was perceived that he could win. The more he raised, the more he was able to overwhelm his Republican opposition. One by one, Republican challengers fell by the wayside.

This formula worked until Iowa, when 59 percent of Republicans voted against Bush, though he won the caucuses with a plurality. Yet, the campaign soldiered on with the same strategy: rolling out the big guns. Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu endorsed Bush (which must have been awkward considering that the younger Bush fired him as President Bush’s chief of staff in 1991). Then former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp declared for Bush. Finally, the Saturday before primary day, the campaign brought out its secret weapons — the extended Bush family, including George and Barbara.

The results of this strategy were seen Tuesday.

The campaign now moves to South Carolina. Bush and his supporters are talking boldly about how conservative South Carolina is a more reliably “Republican” state than independent-minded New Hampshire, even though the state has a Democratic governor.

But the “trust-fund baby” syndrome is still evident. The day after this crushing defeat, Bush was back in the endorsement game. This time it was former Vice President Dan Quayle. While it is possible that Quayle was going to endorse Bush anyway, the timing was particularly bizarre: The senior Bush’s assistance didn’t help right before New Hampshire, so the day afterward, you go to Dad’s ex-running mate and get him to vouch for your conservative bona fides? And if George W. gets the nomination, how pleased will New Hampshire voters be that Quayle characterized the state’s support of McCain as a “mistake”?

Like it or not, McCain has stumbled onto the big secret of running for president — it’s all about storytelling. Voters tend to respond to a candidate whose mixture of philosophical message and personal story crystallizes into a single dynamic image. Bush unfortunately does not have a memorable message and his personal story certainly isn’t compelling when juxtaposed with McCain’s. Throughout this campaign Bush has appeared as a supporting character in what should be his own story, allowing others to prop him up by bestowing gifts, sweetheart deals and references upon him.

McCain’s personal story is the stuff of Hollywood pictures. Plus, he has a message. Admittedly, it is a nontraditional Republican message, emphasizing political reform over tax cuts and social issues, but it is a message that marries well to the man’s personal story. The model, ironically enough, is Ronald Reagan. Twenty years ago, after all, the Republican establishment didn’t believe in supply-side economics. Reagan had to use his own force of will and bright optimism to capture the party and subsequently force his changes through Congress.

It’s way too soon to say whether McCain will have that impact upon the GOP. However, we do know one thing — there is such a thing as having too many friends.

Robert George is on the editorial board of the New York Post

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