On Jeffords, Dubya Does a Dukakis

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A kind of wistful Republican damage control made these points:

  • James Jeffords was never really a Republican anyway; he was a RINO (Republican In Name Only) who voted consistently liberal.

  • That 50-50 Senate split was a fiction in any case. Real Republicans numbered considerably fewer.

    Therefore, as the spin construes it, Jeffords' defection means little. Good riddance. A piece on National Review Online refers to Jeffords as RuPaul.

    But the consequences will be real and considerable. The Senate will reorganize itself around the new arithmetic — turning over the committee chairmanships and the Senate leadership itself. The impact on Bush's judicial appointments alone will be enormous.

    The White House would be wise to read the Jeffords affair as a symptom of its own deficiencies, and a warning of dangers ahead. The White House would be foolish to see the Jeffords apostasy merely as a disruptive little treachery by an enemy within.

    Now that Jeffords has upset the fragile ecology of the tundra, the Bush administration needs to lead itself to a period of introspection. There's a fatal pattern at work, and the election of 2002 is approaching at the speed of light. Unless the Bush people find a way to reverse an ancient pattern of complacent Republican navigation — the habit of running aground on the rocks of their own stupidity — then 2002 is going to be a disaster for them.

    Ronald Reagan disproved the instinctive Republican tenet that real men don't need public relations. In any case, the Bush White House's public relations have been clumsy and dumb. There's a cheerful tendency to walk into doors. There's a strange inability to foresee trouble, to repair public misperceptions, and to mount articulate counterattacks. Republicans cannot blame it all on the liberal bias of the media.

    In the fall of 1988, I switched back and forth, traveling with the presidential campaigns of Michael Dukakis and of Vice President George Bush. With the Dukakis campaign, I felt as if I was watching high school football — fumbles, missed blocks, lost luggage, half-filled auditoriums, adolescent amateurism. The Bush campaign, on the other hand, was professional football: clickity-click clockwork, perfect timing, glitzy graphics, all the legacy of Mike Deaver image-control and perfectionism.

    In the George W. Bush White House, there seems to have been a reversal. Bush has Dukakis tendencies.

    Dukakis posed in that ridiculous tankman's hat, sitting in the turret like Snoopy. The other day while watching George W. Bush accepting his honorary degree at Yale, I sensed a Dukakis moment. I understand that the overall effect of the speech, if you were there in New Haven, was not as embarrassing as the soundbites. I saw only the television clips, and they were painful — the towel-snapper's smirk, the jokes about how if you are a C student you may get to be president, and if you drop out (as Dick Cheney did) you get to be vice president, and about not being able to remember everything that happened to him at Yale. The effect was not endearing, but demeaning to the office that was held by Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt. I have tried for months to be fair to George W. Bush, but that scene in New Haven gave me a rush of something like contempt.

    The White House evidently mishandled the Jeffords affair — even though his defection might have been only a matter of time anyway.

    But the substance of the Bush agenda, especially on energy and the environment, has been advanced in a manner that has sometimes seemed willfully maladroit. There is a massive blind spot in the White House, and oddly, it seems, in Dick Cheney — an obliviousness to just how bad they are beginning to look in the eyes of the decisive middle third of the electorate.

    Some of the criticism of the Bush administration, especially on issues like arsenic and Kyoto, has been maliciously unfair. But effective. The strange thing is that the White House has not been better at countering it.

    Post-Jeffords, it is, in any case, a new game of football, and George W. Bush had better learn to play more like a professional.