Gush & Bore
"How about Christie Whitman?" said a friend of mine when I drifted by the office at around 6 p.m. last week. How about her how? I thought. Did something awful happen to her? Are we gonna hire her? Like maybe to replace me until I come back from judiciary exile sometime next spring?
My friend was talking about Whitman's announcement that she wouldn't be running for Frank Lautenberg's open Senate seat next year?a consolation, since if Jersey politics tops the news, I can't be missing much. But it does immediately leave Republicans without a candidate. I'll add my voice to those of the New York Post and MUGGER, who've both said that Steve Forbes would be ideal; the problem is, Forbes is the only person in the country who doesn't realize he can't be president. Bret Schundler has worked marvels as mayor of Jersey City?but urban minorities never provide majorities for Republicans in statewide races, and it's hard to see where he'll come up with the requisite dough. Dick Zimmer is yesterday's news. Right now it looks like Tom Kean is in the best position to ride the vogue for liberal Republicans to power.
That there is such a vogue is undeniable. Last week, George Bush said he didn't think Washington should bail out California for what it spends on undocumented aliens. As it happens, neither do I. But as the candidates debated the issue, what was striking was how unfamiliar all of them were with the traditional conservative Republican playbook. They discussed it as if they were libs.
The idea of having Washington pay money to states that have a lot of immigrants arises from the logic of Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that Texas did not have the right to exclude the children of illegal immigrants from schools. This jurisprudence is largely what keeps initiatives like California's Proposition 187 from being constitutional. But Plyler and the statutes enacted in its spirit create constitutional problems of their own. They amount to federal laws requiring state expenditures?or, in the ancient language of the Contract with America era, "unfunded mandates." Constitutionally, the feds can't interfere with state budgets?which is why you get to deduct your state taxes on your federal returns.
Bush's explanation for his position changed in the course of the week. It didn't get settled until the campaign issued a press release to explain why Dubya had answered no. He had "thought the question was about whether the federal government should reimburse for costs of education funding," whereas obviously the questioner was asking about something else. But Bush is exactly wrong. Education funding is exactly the constitutional issue here. The "unfunded mandates" logic is that, if a state doesn't want to pay to supply a given commodity (in this case, education), and if Washington insists that the state supply it anyway, then Washington must pay for it.
Forbes aide Greg Mueller chortled at Bush's confusion, but then gave his own candidate's answer, which was even less informed. "[Steve Forbes] believes defending the borders of the U.S. is a federal responsibility," Mueller improvised, "so there is a responsibility to reimburse states like California feeling the impact of illegal immigration." Reimburse them for what? Does Mueller think he's taking about disaster aid? National defense has absolutely nothing to do with it, unless California is going broke sending commando forces to the Mexican border.
But back to Christie for a sec. The big question is why she pulled out. In the early hours after her announcement, the top explanation was that she didn't relish the prospect of raising the tens of millions of bucks it's going to take to win that seat. Jack Kemp used that line when he was bailing out of presidential politics five years ago and, now as then, it's hooey. Fundraising is what politicians do. It's 90 percent of the job. Someone saying she doesn't want to run for Senate because she's scared of fundraising is like a Triple-A ballplayer saying he doesn't want to go to the big leagues because he can't stand the batting practice. Maybe he doesn't enjoy it, but it's what he's doing already.
A lot of people think she was in much graver trouble than she looked. Whitman had a habit of winning squeaker elections?she never, ever got a majority?and there was some evidence her margin for error was getting shaved. The radio clown Bob Grant could not be expected to get more than two or three percent of the vote?but that's two or three percent Whitman no longer had to give away. It's one thing to be a pro-choice Republican?it may even be necessary in New Jersey?but it's quite another to be the kind of sanctimonious autocrat that Whitman proved to be on the issue. During the 1997 governor's race, she lost virtually all support among social conservatives by crapping on pro-lifers?even backing a primary challenge to one Republican legislator, the partial-birth abortion crusader Mike Pappas. On the eve of the election, I talked to a dozen national Republicans who were saying, "I hope she loses."
And it's not as if this social liberalism garnered her any votes among the Stockbrokers-with-two-Mistresses of Englewood or the Millionaire-Gay-Nightclub-Owners of Cherry Hill?those who think a governor's responsibilities should be confined to keeping taxes down. Because by then it had begun to dawn on people that Whitman's "supply-side" "tax cuts" were nothing of the sort. They were paid for by refinancing the Garden State's long-term debt. This gutless unwillingness to pay for the tax cuts by shrinking government threatens to discredit tax cuts everywhere.
The best explanation of what Whitman is up to comes from my colleague Fred Barnes. She's leaving a race that she stood a chance of losing and taking the inside track for a cabinet position. Maybe it won't be a top cabinet position, but Bush is going to need Christie as Secretary of Transportation, or Health and Human Services or something like that. After all, the Bush Cabinet is bound to be a cabinet that Looks Like America, if Dubya's Arkansan mentor is any guide.
And he is. There's a conventional wisdom developing that the reason Al Gore is running a tractionless, Bob Dole-style campaign is that he's "weighed down" by the baggage of Bill Clinton. Isn't there something fishy about that? Didn't Clinton win the last two presidential elections by a wide margin? Didn't he rally a solid two-thirds of the country behind him to defend his right to lie to them? Under this same c.w., Bush benefits from being the anti-Clinton. Now isn't there something fishy about that? Bush, after all, is a sweet-talking, can't-give-a-straight-answer, centrist-mush-specialist Southern governor...
That's why one can be so grateful that The Washington Post cleared the air last week by conducting the most brilliant poll of the young campaign. It compared public perceptions of Bush and Gore by asking whether their positions were like Clinton's. Sixty-two percent thought Gore's positions were similar, versus 25 percent who thought they were different. But 67 percent thought Bush's positions were similar, versus only 21 percent who thought they were different. Unless I wasn't listening in first-grade math, it sounds like there's a slim but outside-the-margin-of-error consensus that George Bush is more like the president than even the president's number-two is.
By the way, that 67 percent who think Bush's positions are Clintonesque are divided into 41 percent who approve of this similarity, and only 26 percent who disapprove. This is hardly a message of Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead.
If the most vapid line of the week was Al Gore's pathetic insistence that "I represent change," the most bizarre came when Bill Bradley, in the course of an ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos, listed his favorite presidents. Bradley said: "Lincoln, probably Washington, FDR, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk." I love that: definitely the corrupt hack Harry Truman, but "probably" George Washington. The doozy is James Polk, who was the country's firmest imperialist (nosing out that race-mad megalomaniac Teddy Roosevelt), but little more than that.
Oh, yes, and the great authors of the century are Proust, Joyce and Dean Koontz. For that matter, the great businessmen are Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Sy Sperling of Hair Club for Men.
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