There is something about George W. Bush that simultaneously confounds pundits and appeals to swing voters. He doesn't fit the profile of the ordinary presidential candidate, which leaves pundits perplexed and the electorate impressed.
Think about it. How many columns have you seen either laboring to defend Bush's conservatism or attacking his professed compassion as fraudulent? Yet, the "mushy middle" doesn't seem to be too hung up on such questions.
There are basically two types of people who throw their hats into the political ring: those who crave the power that comes with elective office, such as Bill Clinton, and those who are driven by political ideology, such as Ronald Reagan. As to the ideological types, there's nothing very new about their beliefs -- politics is an old game.
Sure, every once in a while ideas come in new packaging, such as the supply-side movement of the Reagan-Kemp '80s, but tax cuts were nothing new. Arthur Laffer just came up with a user-friendly graph to explain the growth phenomenon. In the '90s, the so-called Third Way movements are touted as containing new ideas, but they are really little more than an admixture of conservative and liberal policies, usually heavily weighted toward the liberal side. Most Third Way movements, in fact, are the experiments of officious baby boomers-turned-politicians treating politics as their adult chemistry sets.
Unable to dissect "compassionate conservatism" and having no words in their political vocabulary to explain it, some befuddled analysts are beginning to describe Bush's unique approach to politics as Third Way as well. It is not.
I believe the key to understanding Bush is to realize that he doesn't fall neatly into either of the two types of candidates I've described. He doesn't lust for power, and he isn't particularly driven by ideology. Though he's been around politics all his life, his relationship with it has been more platonic than a love affair. So what makes him tick?
Well, just because Bush is not an ideologue doesn't mean he is without political beliefs grounded in ideology. For the most part, he is conservative, though not a purist. In his acceptance speech he earned the support of the base by affirming that he is for tax cuts, SDI, strengthening the military, protection of the unborn, partial privatization of Social Security, educational choice and abolishing the estate tax. He reinforced his belief in family and family values by his touching tribute to his parents. He has said his favorite Supreme Court judges are those stalwart models of conservatism and judicial restraint, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
On the other hand, Bush talked about making prescription drugs a new entitlement. He has elsewhere declared that literacy is the new constitutional right. These are hardly conservative notions. So is Bush a fraud?
Many Democrats and media types would have us believe so. They hear Bush's expressions of compassion as fool's gold -- window dressing for the same old GOP politics of corporate greed. Sooner or later, they seem sure, he's going to trip up and expose himself for the avaricious preppy-legacy he is.
They're wrong. There's nothing odd about Bush reaching out to minorities. It's a function of his genuine concern for their welfare and his refusal to accept the conventional wisdom that they are unapproachable by Republicans. There's also nothing odd about Bush offering new programs (such as in education) that don't neatly fit into the conservative classification. It's not because he's dabbling in a third way of his own. Third Way politicians are policy wonks who eat, sleep and breathe politics. Not Bush. He's not playing with an adult chemistry set with a baby boomer-arrogance. He's just fairly new to the game of politics and has brought his energy, optimism and enthusiasm with him.
What ought to have Gore shaking in his boots is that the apolitical approach that Bush brings to politics involves a disarming quality that is going to make him powerfully hard to beat in November. Most swing voters will relate to Bush because they are not particularly driven by ideology, either. They are looking for a person who wants to make a difference and is refreshingly uncynical enough to believe he can. The wonkish Al Gore is going to have a much more difficult time speaking their language.