Watching George W. Bush's consistently mediocre debate performances, I wonder what the Texas governor would have to do to shake the Republican
electorate out of its nap. Drool on himself? Drool on one of his opponents?
Have an acid flashback? Walk out onstage with a hooker on each arm?
The last GOP debate before the Jan. 24 Iowa caucus went off with nary a
glitch Saturday afternoon at a Des Moines' PBS affiliate, in a building
decorated with life-size statues of Ernie and Bert and Big Bird. I must
confess to something of a funk after this particular snooze-a-thon, which
did nothing more than recall the fact that the word "Iowa" is taken from the
Siouan word "ouaouia," meaning "puts to sleep."
My trip to Iowa was full of a number of corporate hassles -- inflicted by
TWA and Sprint PCS and Bell Atlantic and American Express; pains in the ass
not worth going into, nothing more than what we all regularly experience at
the cold, inept hands of corporate America every day. But then it occurred
to me that corporate America is the perfect metaphor for what gives me the
heebie-jeebies about the fact that Bush is all but being coronated president of the United States -- by many of the same corporate greedbags.
It's not just that he's evasive -- which he is, refusing to answer questions
about his ties to contemptible racists or his position on various relevant
issues or his record as governor. And it's not that he's so completely and
utterly unprepared to rule the nation. It's that he's the perfect
representation of the mediocrity for which we as a nation continue to
settle. Government health chieftains allow a certain number of rat feces and
dead bugs in each candy bar. There is actually an acceptable measurement for
these sorts of things. And Bush embodies that from head to toe, from the
cynicism of his empty answers to the shallowness of his uninquisitive
It's all pretty infuriating to watch, and while the rest of the press corps
is dissecting the ins and outs and expectations of the 90-minute charade
that just went down, I'm sitting here, alone, wondering how Bush can get
away with it. "Christopher, we're witnessing an increasingly heated battle
between John McCain and George Bush on the subject of taxes," the radio
voice is intoning behind me, while a bureau chief for a major American daily
newspaper says a similar thing to my left.
For whatever faults are bubbling over in McCain, Utah Sen. Orrin
Hatch, commentator Alan Keyes,
Christian activist Gary Bauer and
Forbes, it's fairly obvious that each has at least about 50 I.Q. points on
Bush has a pressed, handsome visage and an affable frat-boy
temperament. And it's kind
of nice that if a photographer's around he tends to be drawn to little black and brown kids
like a tornado to a trailer park. And that he occasionally mentions the word "mosque" without
it being in a description of a bombing raid he just called in.
But beneath all the shellac, the truth is that all you're really left with is the
personification of the corporate gentleman's C, the inferior, constantly
infuriating products that burden our lives because someone, somewhere,
decided that the shoddy workmanship was fine because it was good enough.
And I think what has put me in this funk is that what "good enough" means to the thousands of
establishment Republicans who have lined up like lemmings to endorse Bush, and the thousands
more who have lined his campaign coffers with unprecedented millions, is that it's OK that he's
so mediocre as a mind, and it's quite all right that he's not willing to take much of a stand on
anything controversial, because Bush's surface affability will be enough to sell him to you
come Election Day. And so, gentle reader, what "good enough" implies is nothing short of
contempt for you.
You could hear this disbelief every now and then in the debates from Bush's five opponents,
though it seems that by now they've resigned themselves to the triumph of Bush's
good-enough-ness. Hatch had a good line once about making Bush his VP so Bush could grow in the
job and be ready for it come November 2008. But they seem to have given up on pointing out the
utter nakedness of this seemingly inevitable winner. Away from the cameras, his rivals' campaign
staffers will shake their heads and wonder how this is happening. And the other night, a
conservative Republican congressman told me that he, too, shared my heebie-jeebies.
But the fact remains that Bush is the heavy favorite to win the Iowa caucus. A
Research 2000 poll conducted from Jan. 8 until Jan. 11 for KCCI-TV in Des Moines and KIMT-TV in
Mason City has Bush with a solid 46 percent of likely Iowa Republican voters. Forbes is next
with less than half of that -- 20 percent -- while McCain, who hasn't campaigned in the state at all, is third with 8 percent. Bauer and Keyes are tied with 7 percent each, while
Hatch once again seems to be sweeping the support of his immediate family, steady at 1
For whatever reason, Saturday's debate in Iowa Public Television's Maytag Auditorium was fought
softly. The focus was on Bush's positions rather than the fundamental problem that his
knowledge of the issues seems to be little more than whatever talking points he's memorized, or
whatever lines he can recall from his TV commercials.
There was McCain, for instance, taking it to Bush for the front-runner's big fat tax cut, most
of which will go to America's most wealthy. And, as a tacit acknowledgment that McCain has the
Bushies sweating if nothing else, Bush countered with a shot at McCain's tax plan as well.
"You say we ought to eliminate what's called employer-provided benefits to workers," Bush said
to McCain, who is leading him in most New Hampshire polls. "These are benefits where
transportation or meals or continuing education is given to a worker tax-free. That's $40 billion of your $170 billion tax reduction plan. Why would you say to a single mom who's working, who's getting educated, that she would have to pay taxes on those benefits?"
"Well, the first thing I'd say to the single mom is that I've got a tax cut for you and
Gov. Bush doesn't," McCain said. "That's the first thing."
Bush denied McCain's claim, but the senator continued: "The real issue is, my friends, is
we've got a surplus," McCain said. "And the question is,
what do you want to do with it? I want to give it to low- and middle-income Americans as a tax
cut. I want to give them the benefits from this that they need, that lower- and middle-income
Americans need. But I also think we've got a ticking time bomb out there called Social
Security. That has got to be fixed. We've got a national debt of $5.6 trillion that we need to
pay for because we're laying that debt on young Americans."
The Bush $483 billion tax cut allots no money to these priorities, McCain charged. "And when
you run ads saying you're going to take care of Social Security, my friend, that's all hat and
"That's cute," Bush said.
After the debate -- and, presumably, after his staff had better briefed him -- McCain offered a
better counterpunch to Bush's charge. McCain argued that his tax plan exempts corporate payments for dependent care and health-care premiums, and said that the detail Bush had hit him on closes a corporate loophole for giving employees fringe benefits like golf club memberships and free parking. Bush's charge that tax breaks for continuing education would be ended was just
plain "erroneous," a McCain spokesman said.
Generally, however, whether it was because the candidates were all sitting, or because they've resigned themselves to the cold hard reality
that Bush is going to win the caucus, or because it was a Saturday afternoon on PBS, the debate
As always, the candidates agreed more than they disagreed. All wanted to help farmers. All
wanted to provide more choice in health care and education. All regard the Clinton
administration's ethical track record as reprehensible. Throughout the debate,
the candidates provided a sort of ideological huddle, talking up the worth of the GOP as
opposed to that of the Democrats. It was a weird love-in, Republican style.
"All of the proposals my colleagues mention are all good," McCain said during the Q&A on health care.
"Good answer, Steve," Hatch said to Forbes after he asked the publisher about the sleaze in the
Clinton administration. "Very good answer."
"I think, Alan, you answered that very well," Forbes said to Keyes after his turn with a bit on
renewable energy resources.
"Exactly what channel is that on, Orrin?" Bush joked to Hatch, who had three times before
shamelessly plugged two half-hours of infomercials he'd purchased on Iowa TV, most of which is
spent attacking the Clinton-Gore administration as the least ethical since the time of
"Governor, thank you so much," Hatch exuded.
But there were a few disagreements. Hatch and Keyes slammed Bauer for backing the
Patients' Bill of Rights. Bauer sniped at Hatch for getting too cozy with China. Bauer slapped
Forbes' flat tax as hurting the common Joe by eliminating the deductions for mortgage payments
as well as those for charitable giving. Forbes repeated his charge that Bush had signed a
pledge not to support a sales-tax increase in 1994, only to push for one in 1997.
Forbes also went after McCain, calling him and Bush "the timid tax-cutters" for not eliminating
the tax code altogether. Then he proceeded to whack Bush for the fact that many of the tax cuts he's supported in Texas were met by school districts with compensatory tax increases. Thus, Forbes charged, "most Texans have never seen those tax cuts. And the same thing is going to happen with your proposal on the federal level."
Bush pointed out an advertisement from the day's Des Moines Register in which former Sen. Bob Dole slammed Forbes for damaging him so much in '96 that he never fully recovered. "This letter is written because I believe the Republican Party, and our eventual presidential
nominee could be damaged again because of distorted negative television political ads," Dole's
ad reads. "Anyone who followed [the 1996] race closely would
agree that the millions of dollars of deceptive and distorted negative television ads were a
major factor in that loss ... It is appropriate to criticize your opponent's policy proposals,
public statements and his voting record, but inappropriate and deceptive to pick out a few
items in a major tax bill ... and then accuse an opponent of favoring or voting for more
spending, higher taxes, or both ... I emerged the Republican nominee, battered, bruised, and
broke, and a much easier target for the negative Clinton-Gore fall campaign."
What Bush neglected to point out when citing Dole's newspaper ad against Forbes' TV ads, of
course, is that the most "deceptive and distorted negative television ads" right now are the
ones run by Bush's own surrogates -- Grover Norquist and the National Right to
Life Committee -- against McCain, which essentially accuse the pro-life conservative of being a Yippie.
Additionally, the first negative TV ad of the season was run by Bush surrogates at the
Republican Leadership Council against Forbes.
The negative Forbes ad Dole is thought to be addressing, in which he accuses Bush of signing
-- and then breaking -- a pledge that he would oppose sales-tax increases, is accurate, though
incomplete in that it never mentions that Bush's sales-tax plan never passed.
McCain, Forbes and Bush then got so caught up in their own jabbering on taxes,
the moderator, Des Moines Register editor Dennis Ryerson, had to jokingly reprimand them.
"Listen carefully, gentlemen," he said.
"We had a little mini-debate over here," said McCain.
But no one succeeded at getting Bush to blink. Not even Keyes, the best orator of the bunch,
who won the privilege of asking Bush a question during the debate. Keyes came at him, interestingly, with a punch from both the
right and a follow-up from the left. The Texas governor's slippery escape from both blows,
however, displayed his significant political skills, if nothing else.
Keyes asked Bush about a Texas town "in which the City Council had passed an ordinance saying
that all the business of this Texas American town is to be conducted in the Spanish language. A
lot of us, millions of other Americans like myself, look at that sort of thing as an assault
on our linguistic unity that is dangerous to the future union of this country. And yet, you
have done nothing to respond to this. What action do you plan to take to show the people that
you stand for one nation-one language, rather than a nation linguistically divided?"
"No es la verdad," Bush said. ("That's not the truth.")
"Es la verdad, Seqor." said Keyes.
"Un momento," said Bush.
"!Vamanos!" urged McCain
Bush then said he had "expressed concern about it" since he thought the county business should
conduct business in English. He then said he supported "English Plus," a program that supports
the concept that "English is the great language that provides freedom and opportunity plus we
respect other people's heritage in this country."
Keyes then came after Bush from his left flank, on one of the governor's least favorite topics,
the Rebel flag flying above the South Carolina Capital. In the past week, State Sen. Arthur
Ravenel, a supporter of both the Confederate flag and Bush, said that the South Carolina
General Assembly would not bow to the whims of "that organization known as the National
Association for Retarded People," meaning the NAACP. When asked to apologize, Ravenel did so -- to retarded people, for lumping them in with the NAACP. Bush, characteristically, refused to
ask Ravenel to apologize, saying only that his remarks were "unfortunate name-calling."
With this ammo, Keyes came at Bush. "We've got a Republican named Sen. Ravenel who has also
-- among other things in the last couple days -- made extremely insulting and derogatory
remarks about black Americans, saying in effect that we're all retarded. Will you join me in
repudiating that kind of racial slur?"
"Yes, I, I, I agree with you, Alan," Bush said, surprising Keyes. "His comments are out of
line and, and, and we should repudiate them."
A weird silence hung in the Maytag Auditorium. Bush had just done something he had
refused to do earlier in the week -- repudiate one of the many racist good ol' boys hiding in the Trojan Horse of his compassionate conservatism. Just what the hell is motivating
this guy? Just what does he stand for, other than winning?
Keyes had a bit more luck onstage trumpeting the cause of Thomas Navarro, whose parents are
"looking for a way to get the FDA to stand aside so they could get the best treatment for
Thomas, who was a 4-year-old dying of aggressive brain cancer, a brain tumor." The treatment
Navarro's parents want, however is considered controversial, and the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve it.
Keyes had Navarro and his father stand as he
announced that he had prepared a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala asking that the "government should not stand
in the way of responsible people who are trying to get the kind of medical care that will help
to prolong life." Keyes had penned a fairly uncontroversial letter urging Shalala to "expedite a decision on allowing the medical treatment chosen by his parents
for this young boy." He even made the letter fairly benign in tone -- especially for the fiery, sometimes rhetorically unhinged Keyes -- so as to best assure that the other candidates would join his cause.
Four of his five opponents had signed the letter, Keyes said.
Guess who the fifth was.
"That public men publish falsehoods/Is nothing new," Robinson Jeffers once wrote, as quoted in
a book by a much abler campaign reporter almost 30 years ago. "Be angry at the sun for
setting/If these things anger you."
But I am angry. At the sun, sure, but also that this guy is coasting to victory here in Iowa, unwilling to take a single controversial stand, riding on
a powerful wave in the shallow waters of nothing more than inevitability and a desire to win.