Bush's missed opportunity

He won in South Carolina, but he could have won a lot more if he'd been willing to stand up to the bigots at Bob Jones University.

Published February 22, 2000 11:00AM (EST)

Despite his outrage at Sen. John McCain for comparing him to President Clinton, George W. Bush employed classic Clintonian tactics to lead himself to victory in South Carolina. He stole his opponent's rhetoric, inflated his record to match his opponent's, marginalized his opponent to make him appear like an extremist and carpet bombed his opponent with attack ads. But the big irony for the Texas governor, and this will haunt him down the road, is that he failed to adopt one of Clinton's key tactics from the 1992 campaign when the opportunity arose.

In one particular area, Bush failed spectacularly in South Carolina. As GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio recently told the Wall Street Journal: "The person who comes up with [his own] version of 'Sister Souljah' ... will do a great deal for the Republican Party." Bush could have had his Sister Souljah moment when he spoke at Bob Jones University, but he shamefully let it go.

Bob Jones University, as everyone now knows, is a very conservative Christian South Carolina institution: It bans interracial dating and its founder, Bob Jones, was a virulent anti-Catholic.

On "Meet The Press," moderator Tim Russert asked Bush if he wasn't giving affirmation to the views of Bob Jones University by agreeing to speak at the school and not criticizing its policies when given the opportunity. Bush responded, "I stood up there and said, 'Let's march together toward a better tomorrow.' How can I go into a university like that and subscribe to those views when my little brother, the great governor of Florida, married a girl from Mexico in my own family?"

Observers with a keen ear might ask, "Good point, Governor. Why didn't you make it at Bob Jones?" Sharing the experience of your brother and sister-in-law's marriage would have given flesh to a philosophical disagreement.

In marked contrast to Bush, that's what Alan Keyes did when he spoke at Bob Jones: "There are folks who told me I shouldn't come here because I am a black man and, I say it with pride, a Roman Catholic Christian, and I would not be received in that place on that account ... I have, thankfully, put the lie to that by coming."

The argument could be made that Keyes had nothing to lose, since he's not going to win anyway. But, in the long run, Bush risks far more. Keyes, the black, conservative Catholic, did something that an evangelical Christian like Bush is supposed to do -- he testified to his faith, verbalized his Christianity as much as his Catholicism and still criticized the institution's policies. Meanwhile, Bush simply told students what they wished to hear and demonstrated no leadership.

But the impact is not the same coming from Keyes, who has no chance of winning the nomination. Worse, it does not help the image of the GOP when the only candidate who dares critique Bob Jones University on racial matters to its face happens to be the only black one. McCain at least had an excuse: Bob Jones III pointedly did not invite him.

Bush could have done it all: He could have critiqued Bob Jones' policy. He could have professed his faith. He could have spoken from the heart about the special place his brother and sister-in-law occupy in the family, noting also that they are Catholic. He could have distanced his party from the shadow of bigotry that haunts it. And he could have had his own proud Sister Souljah moment.

Souljah, as you may recall, was a rapper affiliated with the group Public Enemy. She had said in a Washington Post interview following the Los Angeles riots that, considering how blacks have been killing each other every day, "Why not have a week and kill white people?" On the 1992 campaign trail, Bill Clinton was invited to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition conference. Noting that Souljah had addressed the crowd the day before, Clinton took the Rainbow Coalition to task for inviting Souljah and her "message of hate." He did so right in front of Jackson.

This was an intentional tactic on Clinton's part. Democrats believed Jackson had damaged Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential bid by demanding all sorts of platform concessions for his various liberal constituencies. Clinton decided to use the forum Jackson gave him to send a different signal. Stiff-arming the reverend was a clear message to the suburban voters in the primary that, down the road, Clinton would not be beholden to Jackson, radical blacks or the extreme wing of his Democratic Party. Dissing the president of black America was a high-risk move. As it turned out, Clinton won the nomination, conquered the suburbs in the fall and is today viewed, in Toni Morrison's famous words, as "America's first black president."

But Bush still has a long way to go before earning any similar title. To underscore Bush's tactical defeat, the same week he appeared at Bob Jones University, Colin Powell became one of the few national Republican figures to explicitly call for the Confederate flag to come down from the South Carolina Statehouse. Remember, this is the same Republican Party that was outraged only a few weeks ago when Gore's black campaign manager, Donna Brazile, suggested that the GOP only used African-Americans such as Powell and J.C. Watts because they "have no program, no policy," that would appeal directly to black voters. "They'd rather take pictures with black children than feed them."

If Bush wishes to be leader of that party, he must find ways to help dispel the notion that the GOP is insensitive -- at best -- on racial issues and completely beholden to the party's most extreme elements. Instead, Bush has given the Democrats two clubs with which to bash the GOP should he be the nominee -- the flag and Bob Jones University.

As Bush continues to metamorphose into a "tactical Clinton," will he recognize the next Republican "Sister Souljah" -- whomever he or she might be -- the next time? Or is it already too late?

By Robert A. George

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George W. Bush Republican Party