HILL OF BEANS: Diss Establishment

You had to feel bad for Bush. McCain's complaints about the role of money in politics were proving so magical that even New Jersey Senate candidate Jim Florio -- than whom no one has less standing to complain about rigged political processes -- wanted a piece of the action. Florio gave a lecture at Princeton in which he attacked his primary opponent Jon Corzine simply for having more money than he did, and promised to wreck the system that is currently in place that is putting so much emphasis on money.Like most charismatic political crusades, McCain's antiestablishment shtick either sings to you or it doesn't. David Gergen, speaking on NewsHour, showed himself to be one of those who don't get it: "It's an interesting thing," Gergen said. "John McCain is talking about some of the kinds of things that George Bush Sr. used to talk about ... the kind of economics that George Bush Sr. supported in 1980 in his first campaign for the presidency. And the son has picked up the Reagan banner. It's one of the great ironies of this, that George Bush Jr. is talking Reagan economics, and John McCain is talking the moderate line that existed in the party for so long and that was a predominant line until Ronald Reagan came along."What baloney. Gergen is under the delusion that this election is about issues. It's not. McCain wouldn't recognize an issue if he were held captive in a bamboo cage with it for five years. If Bush cannot capitalize, it's because his campaign is not interested in issues either -- at least not any that are hot at the present. The only difference between his personality-based campaign and McCain's is that Bush genuflects to a few issues that were hot around the time Gergen was in the Reagan White House. That's not enough to convince voters that, in a battle of personalities, they'd prefer the Preppie Cokehead over the crazy POW which is about all voters know of either of them.Bush can't "pick up the Reagan banner" by promising supply-side economics any more than he can pick up the Roosevelt banner by promising to win a war with Japan. Circumstances are different. Reagan's tax policies corrected problems that no longer exist. They toppled a complacent generation of Carterites who are no longer in politics. They were a window on Reagan's character which were unique to him. And they brought to power a group of politicians who were willing to listen to the American public but who aren't listening anymore.That's why people who ask, "Who is the candidate of the conservative movement in this election?" also don't get it. There is no longer a conservative movement, any more than there's a Civil Rights movement (even though Democrats -- none more pathetically than Bill Bradley -- continue to campaign as if there were). What there is is a conservative establishment which resembles the Civil Rights establishment. An establishment is what a movement becomes when -- inevitably -- its ranks get swollen with opportunists and its members grow less interested in defending any political cause than in defending institutional prerogatives. The best example from last week came when the National Right to Life Committee and its South Carolina affiliate both endorsed Bush, even though McCain's position on abortion and Bush's position on abortion are virtually identical. Both call themselves "pro-life" while constantly signaling voters that abortion is perfectly safe with them. It's not that the NRLC has discovered some subtle difference between the two. It's rather that Bush's vision of political funding would allow the NRLC to protect its financial position, and McCain's (admittedly moronic) campaign finance reform would not.It appears that Bush himself doesn't get it. In extremis, he enlisted several senators to help him out. Among them was Mitch McConnell, the Pangloss of our campaign finance laws, who is the very last person Bush should have defending him against McCain's onslaught. In a masterpiece of casuistry, McConnell argued that, although Bush has raised scads more money than McCain in every conceivable category, Bush's advantage in Washington, DC, is a bit less overwhelming than his advantage in the hinterland. Therefore, McConnell explained, "On a percentage basis, Sen. McCain has really been the inside-the-Beltway candidate." Oh, yes! And when Little Johnny Jones down the street died of food poisoning, it was a bigger catastrophe for children -- on a percentage basis -- than the Bubonic Plague.

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