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Bush's all-oil ticket poses risks for the "compassionate conservative"

August 06, 2000|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

WASHINGTON — George W. Bush had a good nomination week. Despite being in Philadelphia, the nation's birthplace, he avoided being measured against the footprints of George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, orchestrated a reasonably successful convention with the depth of a Pepsi commercial, revved up the Bush-Clinton feud and now heads toward September with an early edge over his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore.

Not that it's a sure thing. Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, although respected for his abilities and experience, is hard-line enough on abortion and cultural issues to jangle centrist nerves. Moreover, this is the first time Republicans have dared to conjoin two former petroleum-industry executives on an "all-oil" ticket. In addition to the doubt that pairing casts on the depth of Bush's "compassionate conservatism," its dubious implications for high-tech America--from Silicon Valley to Massachusetts' Route 128--deserve attention.

The convention's substitution of meringue for content--every four years seems to bring less--could linger with swing voters as a ground to doubt whether George W. has substance or is essentially running on his father's name (the similarities in looks and mannerisms are eerie). The caution for Democrats here is that Gore is another inherited-opportunity politico unable to belabor the point.

The GOP presidential nominee also has potential albatrosses in the Supreme Court and Congress. A Republican president able to appoint one or two new justices with views like Cheney's could tilt the court back to the 1890s. Abortion is one angle, but others range from bigness in business to wide-open campaign finance. If Bush takes office with a Republican Congress--and by winning, he'd be almost certain to--Washington could lose any semblance of ideological balance. Can the Democrats blend these two possibilities into a sophisticated theme? Not so far.

Democrats will be hard-pressed to put on as successful a convention as the Republicans did in Philadelphia. It may be to Gore's credit that he cannot match Bush's mix of folksy superficiality and redeemed-wastrel charisma. But it will not be to Gore's electoral advantage.

Even sympathetic Republicans share reservations about Bush's lack of preparation for the presidency: He's either the least-qualified Republican nominee since Barry M. Goldwater in 1964 or the least-prepared since Warren G. Harding in 1920. Neither backdrop is encouraging. On the other hand, Bush doesn't have to run on his own merits. Like the major Restoration figures in European history (Charles II and Louis XVIII), he's invoking his family name and calling on voters to replace the usurper and end the Clinton era. Thus the usefulness of the emerging feud between George Jr. and President Bill Clinton, the immoral trespasser who overthrew George I. It's a powerful theme that subtly subtracts from Gore, although voters could shrink back when they understand the Bush heir's profound limitations.

When the Stuarts and Bourbons regained their respective English and French thrones, there were hordes of revenge seekers and special interests eager to get back at the trough--and they live again in the Bush entourage. The most conspicuous new power in the Bush campaign--more important even than the hordes of lobbyists and lip-smacking legions of big contributors--is the oil industry. This is hardly a conspiracy. Many oil executives were totally surprised when Bush picked Cheney, the chief executive of Halliburton, the Dallas-based oil-services company.

Still, Bush's background is in oil (as is George Sr.'s), and Cheney's own ties go way back. Before heading to Halliburton, Cheney was secretary of defense during the Persian Gulf War, which was fought on behalf of oil-rich Kuwait; he grew up in Casper, Wy., an oil boomtown since the first well was tapped there in 1890.

The superficial political caution here is that if oil prices surge again this autumn, as heating-oil demand begins to rise, this all-oil ticket could give the GOP some explaining to do, especially in the Northeast and Great Lakes region.

But there is a much larger caveat. From the rise of automobiles in the 1920s to the energy crises of the 1970s and early 1980s, oil has been the mainstay of those eras' great fortunes. In many ways, it has been the symbol of the old industrial order, which in the last five to 10 years has been supplanted by the rise of a different wealth and economic supremacy: high technology and information systems.

During his term, President George Bush was so uninterested in helping U.S. high-tech in its fight with foreign rivals that large chunks of the industry swung to Clinton in 1992. This included then-Hewlett-Packard CEO John A. Young, the Republican who chaired President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness. Since then, Clinton and Gore have bent over backward to favor and aid high-tech, from copyrights to overseas market access.

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