George W. Bush's Media Litmus Tests

This week may signal the official media kickoff of Campaign 2000 and the arrival of Bill Clinton's lame-duck status. But it also marks the start of the national media's quadrennial attempt to drive conservative influence out of the GOP. Compelled in part by impressive early poll ratings, reporters have praised George W. Bush's first outings. But will he pass the media's litmus tests? So far, reporters suggest Bush's "compassionate conservatism" slogan makes him sound like the Un-Reagan, but will he go further to repudiate his party's conservative base?

On ABC's Good Morning America Monday, co-host Charles Gibson asked Michael Duffy of Time magazine and ABC's Cokie Roberts to assess Bush: "Alright, talk to me a little bit about where this guy stands on issues, and Michael, let me start with you. He talks about himself as a compassionate conservative. That sounds a little bit like one from Column A, one from Column B. I don't know what it means. Does he?"

Duffy answered: "Well, what he says it is, essentially, is he's not taking the extreme positions that some in his party have taken for the last four or five years. He said on Saturday, you know, I'm not, I'm conservative, but I'm not uncompassionate. I believe in education, I believe essentially in the environment, I'm not going to say the kind of race-baiting things that perhaps my father or others in the party have said."

In Time, Duffy and Nancy Gibbs touted Bush's ties to successful Republican governors, including Michigan's John Engler, who were by definition centrists: "In contrast to the sinking Congress, the Governors were emerging as stars, centrist and practical CEOs who were busy fixing welfare and improving schools and cutting taxes while Gingrich fiddled." Tax cuts and welfare reform, centrist?

On NBC's Today, Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman marveled at how unusual it is for a conservative to declare he cares about education and the poor: "He's giving a general election message now, Katie. He's telling the Republicans at the grassroots, 'Look, you want to win? Here's how you do it. Yes tax cuts, yes less government, yes decency back in the Oval Office but also we've got to be concerned about educating every American child and helping out the poor.' It's an unusual message really to hear from a Republican rostrum but the people clapped if only because they think this is how to win."

In the pages of Newsweek, Fineman explained: "For generations, the Bushes have been troubled by - and had trouble with - the GOP right. His grandfather was a consummate Ike man, flummoxed by McCarthy and the Red-baiters. His father never bonded with the New Right activists who despised him even after he became leader of the party the Gipper built. If W can get the right wing to ease off - or roll them in the primaries - he can call the party of Ike and Reagan his."

In 1995, hours after Colin Powell announced he would not run for President, Fineman explained the media mindset on CNBC: "A lot of my colleagues are trying to accept the fact that the Republican Party has the upper hand, and they want a Republican Party they can live with, and Powell is a guy they could live with." From elections to inaugurations to conventions, the media aren't seeking to present just the facts, but to talk up a pre-Reagan Republican Party they can "live with." If Bush does trounce Gore, they want to make sure there's no conservative mandate. - Tim Graham