Washington — Around the White House, the President’s political advisers will tell you that George W. Bush really was serious when he campaigned in 2000 on the pledge to “change the tone in Washington.” What is more they will tell you that the idea was the candidate’s, not a political adviser’s. Finally, they will tell you that the gentlemanly tone is something he believes in. Moreover, it may be working. President Bush’s less invidious style may explain why right now the Republicans are in striking distance of reversing the usual midterm results, a loss for the President’s party in Congress.
Only three times in the last century did an incumbent president pick up Congressional seats in his first midterm election. Today it is possible that the Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives and eke out a one-seat majority in the Senate. One reason for this historic reversal is Americans’ concern for their security owing to the war on terror and to the general perception that Saddam Hussein is dangerous. That concern for personal security was probably exacerbated by the three-week terror created by the Washington snipers. But there is also a positive reason that Americans may give the Republicans majorities in both houses of Congress. That is the President’s “new tone in Washington.”
In his numerous campaign stops for Republican House and Senate candidates, the President invariably accentuates positive messages in each candidate’s campaign and never speaks ill of the Democratic opponent. It is a significant difference from past presidential midterm campaigning. Reporter Bill Sammon, the author of a very good insider’s peak into the Bush White House, Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism — From Inside the Bush White House, interviewed an anonymous White House operative who cited the benign consequence of his boss’s gentlemanly approach to midterm campaigning. “What’s also unique is that the opposition this year is not running against George W. Bush,” the Bush aide told Sammon. “In fact, to the contrary, you’ve got Democrats all over the country who are using the President’s likeness in their advertising, trying to say, ‘I’m a Bush person, too, even in cases where they’re not.”
Well, that is a bit of a stretch, it seems to me, but maybe not. The President does have an approval rating of nearly 70% — twenty to thirty percentage points higher than Presidents Reagan or Clinton in their first midterm elections. Still, the general point stands, to wit: the President’s gentlemanly tone is an attractive alternative to the acrimony of yesteryear’s Washington pols.
For a taste of the old rebarbative tone, consider Senator Hillary Clinton. At a fund-raiser for the wilting candidacy of Missouri’s Senator Jean Carnahan, Clinton hissed that the President was raising money “to try to ruin the reputations of our candidates, or if they can’t, to depress the turnout.” Not only is this precisely the opposite of what the suave forty-third president is doing on the campaign trail, it goes against his stated style of being positive and ingratiating. Newsweek reports that Senator Clinton went on to say of the Bush Republicans that “These people are ruthless and they are relentless.” Well, around the White House the mission is to be ruthlessly and relentlessly amiable. It seems to work.
Senator Clinton is also given to claiming that the President was “selected,” not elected. Here is more of the old-style Washington tone of venom and distortion. Candidate Bush won every official recount in the disputed Florida race and all but one media reconstruction of the race. To keep insisting that Bush did not fairly win his presidency is simply dirty politics. It might also be lying, more lying from a political operator caught lying repeatedly by Federal prosecutors.
Interestingly, the Clintons after the forty-second president’s impeachment made much of their intention to end what they called “the politics of personal destruction.” In the above quotes from New York’s junior senator you can see how very difficult it is for them to end this odious tactic. That is because they practiced the politics of personal destruction. It was about the only politics they knew. Now, would it not be ironic if George W. Bush actually succeeds in overcoming the politics of personal destruction with good manners and a positive message? Just call him the herald of a New Politics, “the politics of personal ingratiation.”