Why Bush Lost: Some Blame Beltway Nearsightedness

THE Christmas spirit of gratitude has found its way into the Washington political scene. A visibly surprised and touched President Bush was given an ovation by a standing-room-only crowd at the Kennedy Center's Honors Show.

"There's one more honor to be paid tonight," said emcee Walter Cronkite, "to an individual who has served his country in war and peace for more than half a century and has joined us again tonight to pay tribute to America's performing arts. We offer him our respect, our gratitude, and we thank him for service to his country with honor."

The night before, at the Gridiron Club's annual midwinter banquet, the journalist-attendees gave presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater an equally thunderous ovation.

These expressions of gratitude weren't just coming from Bush supporters. In Washington and elsewhere, those in the arts and devotees of the arts are usually affiliated with the Democratic Party. And many of those in the press cheering loudly for Mr. Fitzwater have been critics of the Bush performance. This holiday period has been for the most part a doleful one for those in Washington who are soon to leave. The Christmas parties held by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were, as usual, quite festive . But no one was mentioning such topics as, "What went wrong?"

One longtime Republican insider whose wisdom has been tapped by journalists for years and years - Charles K. McWhorter - provides his own explanation for recent Republican woes. In his Christmas card, Charlie - as he always does - had written his own serious, reverent message. He spoke of the need to seek guidance through a deeper understanding of God and for us to be willing to "incorporate His plan for all mankind in our daily lives."

The many reporters and politicians who hear from Charlie each year always know that his will be the first Christmas card of the season. But Charlie's penned jottings alongside his religious message were quite down-to-earth.

Of the Bush defeat and of the effort put forth by his fellow Republicans, he wrote: "We blew it!"

House Republican Leader Bob Michel, at a Monitor breakfast, mentioned the McWhorter Christmas card and message. He seemed to feel that Charlie was on the right track with his card's terse comment: "The Bush defeat did not have to happen."

The "we blew it" thesis goes something like this: Bush didn't start early enough, and his campaign was poorly shaped and managed.

I have had other "Christmas letters" that have expressed what the writers thought really cost Bush the election.

One in particular, from Missouri, expressed what they all seemed to be getting at: "You people within the Washington beltway just didn't understand what we in the hinterlands were thinking. You just didn't get it."

That writer went on to say that most people he talked to had supported the Gulf war but have come to feel that "nothing really had been accomplished" and that it was a "wasted effort." Beyond that, this man argued, Bush "simply never understood how much the people hungered for a better way of doing things." What was welling up among the voters, he said, was a "deep desire for change." That's what defeated Bush, he said.

I have never been persuaded by the Republicans' "we-could-have-fixed-it" point of view. (Sorry, Charlie McWhorter!) Up until now, in my view, it has been the economy, the economy, the economy that upended Bush. But I am coming to believe that what we have witnessed in the outpouring of voter support for Clinton and Perot was this almost passionate desire for change - to put off the old, including the way the economy was being handled, but much, much more - and to put on the new.

Those last few words have a timely ring to them at the beginning of the new year.

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