The Magazine

When Bush Came to Shove

Why he was such an effective campaigner.

Nov 25, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 11 • By JAMES ROSEN
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TRAILING THE PRESIDENT across America, the White House press corps logged tens of thousands of miles this election cycle, condemned to watch Bush deliver the same stump speech several times a day. Jaded and bored, we pounced on the gaffes and yawned at the platitudes. In light of the midterm election results, however, it is clear we were watching an exceptionally effective campaigner--as Max Cleland, Jean Carnahan, Bill McBride, and several other stunned victims, still reeling from defeat, can attest.

What made the president's campaign appearances work so well? Certainly it wasn't their setting. He gave most of his speeches at fund-raising or welcome rallies held in hangars at the Air Force bases where his plane touched down. Nor was it his delivery. Bush is famous for his stumbles. "There's an old saying in Tennessee," he told a Nashville audience on September 17, "I know it's in Texas, it's probably in Tennessee, that says, 'Fool me once, shame on--shame on you. Fool me--you can't get fooled again.'"

Part of the answer has to do with his speeches' content. Democrats may find it convenient to chalk up their rivals' successes to the way the White House played the war card. But the reality was more complicated. Bush talked about lots of issues, not just Iraq, and he chose his targets well. His rhetorical villains were hardly limited to terrorists and Saddam Hussein.

Trial lawyers caught nearly as much presidential flak as al Qaeda, and on several different counts. At North Carolina's Charlotte Coliseum on October 24, Bush, championing medical malpractice liability reform, recounted the plight of a doctor who had relocated to the Mississippi Delta "to help people who couldn't help themselves with medicine." Unfortunately, the president explained, "the trial lawyers have made it so hard for this guy to practice compassionate medicine, he said, 'I've had it, I'm moving back home.'"

A week later, at West Virginia's Charleston Civic Center, Bush again blamed avaricious attorneys--this time for driving homebuilders out of business--as he called for terrorism insurance legislation that will "reward the hard hats and hardworking Americans, not America's trial lawyers." Even Bush's hit-or-miss laugh line--"The enemy must have thought we were so weak, so shallow, so self-absorbed, that all we would do after 9/11 is maybe file a lawsuit or two"--was an attack on trial lawyers.

At stop after stop, the president also promised to "make the tax cuts permanent," place strict constructionists on the bench, and revamp Medicare. These thrusts often drew applause equal to, or louder than, his calls for a Department of Homeland Security or regime change in Iraq--the only parts of the president's speech that his audiences had already been exposed to through Iraq-focused news coverage of his previous campaign stops.

But Bush's effectiveness also stemmed from the way he came across as a person. For one thing, he shows respect for his audiences--and for the news media--by starting his events on time or even early. In this, he's the anti-Clinton. He also cuts a neat, muscular figure and projects a sunny disposition. And his speechwriters don't overwrite. They keep his lines short and simple, eschewing soaring Sorensenian sentences in favor of truisms: "It's not the government's money, it's the people's money!"

Bush and his team also excel at tailoring their message to the political exigencies of the locale or host. A good example was their handling of the president's visit to Minnesota during the final week of Election 2002, soon after the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone, one of the Senate's most consistent liberals, and seven other people. Bush--whom Wellstone had criticized during the 2000 campaign for his "really vicious attack on John McCain"--put politics aside at the outset and told the crowd: "Paul Wellstone was respected by all who worked with him; he'll be missed by all who knew him." He acknowledged that his listeners were "in mourning." By the time the president returned to politicking, the audience of close to 20,000 roared its approval. The "dignity gap" between this rally and the much criticized Wellstone memorial was unmistakable.

Similarly, in Florida, where his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, had been dogged by challenger Bill McBride's vow to cut class sizes in public schools--unaccompanied by any explanation of how the cuts would be paid for--the president told a University of South Florida audience in Tampa: "We've got too many in the political process who just say things, just kind of float something out there and hope it sounds good, hope somebody might bite on it, hope it convinces people, but have no intentions or capabilities of getting it done."