The Last Inaction Hero
A ll primary day, the president sat steaming in the Oval Office, furious with Buchanan for having challenged him and with his own handlers for having underestimated the threat. His lead, so they had told him, had never been less than twenty-eight points in their day-to-day tracking polls; he still had a shot at the 70-30 victory they had been promising him. But their hopes and his calm started melting when that ugly last ad went up, the one about his forgotten promise of tax relief for the middle class. Pat was distorting his record, questioning his integrity, calling him a liar. The more Bush thought about it, the hotter he got. So foul was his mood that, when Buchanan briefly passed him in the exit polls, not even his old friend Bob Teeter was brave enough to bring him the news.
That he finally won, 53-37, was no comfort at all -- not when he and his people tuned in the late-night news and read the morning papers. The press was writing off a sixteen-point landslide as a defeat for Bush, and only partly because the boys and girls on the bus had begun framing their stories when the exit polls still pointed to a much closer race. The nasty fact was that nearly half the Republicans in the season's first primary had preferred voting for anybody else available. Some who couldn't stomach Bush or Buchanan wrote in a Democratic interloper, Paul Tsongas, who ran first in his own party and third in the president's.
Bush had thus lost what had become the real battle in media-age politics, in which the actual results counted less than what the experts made of them. It did no good for his spin doctors to claim that he had, after all, won the primary or to blame New Hampshire's acute economic distress for the thinness of his vote. The real question was whether Bush could afford many more such victories in what amounted to a yearlong referendum on his presidency. New Hampshire had been a bad beginning to that process. His narrow escape had laid bare all his weaknesses: the squishy shapelessness of his record, the rising dissatisfaction of the voters with him, and the suddenly glaring inadequacies of his reelection team.