The story goes something like this: On February 1, while the polls were still open in New Hampshire, Karl Rove, Governor George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, called Karen Hughes, Bush’s chief press aide. “The numbers are not good,” Rove reportedly told Hughes. “How not good?” asked Hughes. “Real not good,” replied Rove.
The numbers could scarcely have been worse for Bush. Bush aides and campaign spokespeople had been predicting that he would either win New Hampshire or only lose by a few percentage points. Instead, he got crushed by Senator John McCain. The eighteen-point loss has sent the Bush camp into a tailspin and forced a radical re-tooling of the campaign. It has also put the spotlight on Rove, who was bragging just ten weeks before — during a luncheon here in Austin before the Texas Civil Justice League — that the Bush campaign could afford to ignore New Hampshire, because Bush’s organization in the other primary states was so good. Rove called New Hampshire voters “cranky” and predicted that Bush would have the Republican nomination wrapped up by the end of this month.
Now, Rove is eating a double helping of crow. And he’s been forced to go on the offensive in an effort to derail McCain, who went from being twenty points down in South Carolina to leading Bush by five points. Rove, who until now has largely stayed away from TV cameras, did two television events the weekend after the primary, on CNN and on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” On both shows, Rove repeatedly attacked McCain, calling him a “seventeen-year Washington insider whose accomplishments are few and far between.”
That’s funny: a Bush loyalist calling McCain an insider. The Bush campaign was built by amassing the money and endorsements of the entire GOP establishment. Now Rove is trying to portray his man as an outsider. It’s nearly as hollow as Bush’s speech at Bob Jones University shortly after his humiliation in New Hampshire. There, at a university that prohibits interracial dating, Bush talked about family values. Then, in another event that displayed the campaign’s tin ear, his handlers held a press conference at which former vice president Dan Quayle endorsed Bush. Quayle obligingly endorsed his former foe, saying Bush “has the values to be president.”
Quayle may be right. But at the moment, Bush needs votes, not values. The New Hampshire primary removed the aura of inevitability that the Bush campaign had been cultivating. Like it or not, Bush can’t hide anymore. The campaign cannot — as it did a few days before the New Hampshire primary — decide that Bush will not have any more press conferences. Bush cannot continue to put reporters on one airplane while he and his staffers fly on another. The message of New Hampshire was loud and clear: the Governor’s “I’m-already-the-President act” doesn’t work. It also showed that Bush’s message — what William Safire in the February 7 New York Times, called a “themeless pudding” — isn’t resonating with voters. McCain has outmaneuvered Bush when it comes to two key issues, campaign finance reform and taxes. Now Bush, who has repeatedly promised that he would run a positive campaign, is left with no other option than to attack McCain.
Perhaps the most clever analysis of Bush’s campaign was made by William Saletan, a writer for Slate who said that Bush is Austin’s latest example of the high-tech bubble, akin to Amazon or another new dot-com. “Think of Bush as an Internet company,” wrote Saletan. “In short, people support him because other people support him. This is what stock market analysts call a speculative bubble. Prick the confidence and the bubble bursts.”
Whether or not Bush’s bubble has been burst for good remains to be seen. Despite the obstacles presented by McCain, Bush could still win the Republican nomination. He has far more money than McCain and he has a vastly superior campaign infrastructure that could help him take some of the key primary states like Michigan and California. But there’s a delicious irony in all of this: Bush must now emulate Bill Clinton.
Bush loves to incite crowds by excoriating Clinton’s tactics and morals. But in his heart of hearts, Bush wants to be just like him. In 1992, Clinton became the only presidential candidate in the last fifty years to win the presidency without winning New Hampshire. But Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire by just nine points. Bush’s loss to McCain was twice that margin. Can Bush pull a Clinton? If he does, it will be a sweet comeback. If he doesn’t, Bush and Rove will be back in Austin in six weeks and all the Congress Avenue political jockeying of the past eighteen months over who will succeed Bush will suddenly come to an abrupt halt. Instead of a happy presidential candidate, Austin will be home to a seething governor with lots of time to analyze how his plans for the White House could have gone so wrong so fast.
Robert Bryce is a staff writer at the Austin Chronicle, where a version of this story first appeared.