Republicans regain campaign mojo — and it's Bush, not Trump

Republicans regain campaign mojo — and it's Bush, not Trump
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The Bush campaign style is making a comeback.

Democrats should be afraid. Very afraid.

Among the messages emerging from Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinMost Virginia school districts disobeying Youngkin on order making masks optional: report The Hill's Morning Report - Who will replace Justice Breyer? Overnight Energy & Environment — 'Forever chemical' suits face time crunch MORE’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race last week is this: The era of angry, fire-breathing GOP candidates may be over, replaced by a campaign approach Democrats rarely seem to beat. Instead of a raging Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE, Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanReps ask Capitol Police Board for information on 'insider threat awareness program' Are the legal walls closing in on Donald Trump? Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team MORE, or Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE, there is the shrewd candidate with a keen eye for wedge issues, camouflaged by khakis and a calm demeanor.

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Think George Bush — senior and junior.

Both Bushes presented themselves as easy marks Democrats were eager to challenge. They came across to many as privileged politicians who couldn’t play campaign hardball.

Wrong. 

In 1988, George H.W. Bush tried to do something no vice-president had done since Martin Van Buren — succeed his boss and take over the White House. Democrats were up in the polls, crowing about Bush and the so-called “wimp factor.”

Then along came the “Willie Horton” ad. The now-infamous commercial focused on Democratic candidate Gov. Michael Dukakis’s furlough policy in Massachusetts. Horton, a Black convicted murderer, was released through that program, only to commit more violent crime. The ad was an extremely effective racial “dog whistle” — an indirect message to the hard-core GOP base that the patrician Bush was someone they could support.

Democrats had no effective response. Dukakis tried hard to explain the goals behind his furlough effort. But, as Bush’s predecessor Ronald Reagan once said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

A key aspect of the Bush campaign reverberates for Republicans now: Throughout that blistering contest, Bush’s low-key style and image allowed him to both sustain his suburban appeal and air his base-tailored dog whistles.

His son, George W. Bush, followed the family playbook in 2004. His re-election bid was an uphill battle, with unpopular conflicts still raging in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats smelled victory and nominated Vietnam veteran Sen. John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Energy & Environment — Limits to contamination claims at military bases The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Russia attack 'would change the world' Overnight Energy & Environment — High court will hear case on water rule MORE.

Bush had at least one strong asset: Despite his advantaged background, he came across like a regular person, someone — as the phrase went in his 2000 campaign — you could have a beer with. That lead to the “Wind-surfing” commercial, which flipped the script on his Democratic rival and played to voter distrust of blue-blooded candidates. It showed Kerry sailing along the coast, the picture of self-satisfied aristocratic entitlement, while voice-over noted how the senator had blithely changed his mind on key issues.

The ad — just like the Willie Horton spot — was dissected constantly by television and cable news programs. And the frustrated Democratic candidate was left to explain it.

Even the discreditedSwift Boat” campaign worked for Bush. The controversial commercials smeared Kerry’s service in Vietnam. But the president’s team didn’t fund or produce them — so Bush was able to denounce the effort, maintain his image, and still benefit from the distrust those ads created around Kerry.

Trump and his acolytes broke from this style. No dog-whistles here. Nothing subtle or indirect. Restraint was not in their campaign vocabulary — and suburbanites eventually ran in the other direction.

But Youngkin reached back beyond Trump and revived the Bush family strategy. He’s a billionaire banker, a 25-year veteran of the elite Carlyle Group investment firm — but campaigned as an “average Joe.” Dressed in fleece and khakis, Youngkin could have been a neighbor you ran into at Home Depot.

His campaign faltered at first, until he took another page from the Bush manual. Youngkin saw a possible wedge issue in the growing hostility aimed at educational elites, with a touch of racial grievance thrown in. He developed the “Beloved” commercial, which featured a supposedly average middle-class mom frustrated that her son’s school forced him to read Toni Morrison’s explicit novel about the horrors of slavery.

It was 1988 and 2004 all over again. True to form, cable and broadcast news dutifully scrutinized the controversial ad, giving it the kind of exposure Youngkin could only hope for. And Democrat Terry MacAuliffe was left to explain his vetoes of two parental control bills with a tone-deaf campaign killer: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Through it all, Youngkin kept his demeanor approachable and credible. Attempts to paint him with a Trumpian brush failed. Suburban voters made him governor-elect.

Youngkin’s victory shows the GOP that everything old may be new again.

They can hold their base with adroit nods in their direction while burying the fury-filled political style that has turned off swing voters and independents.

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And the Democrats? Well, their only candidate to confront the Bush strategy and win a big election was Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems ready for Supreme Court lifeline Arizona bill would allow legislature to overturn election results Manchin and Sinema must help Biden make the Supreme Court look more like America MORE — a man even his nemesis Ken Starr has called “the most gifted politician of the Baby Boomer generation.”

No problem: The Democrats have about 12 months to quickly find a lot of people just like him.

Time to be afraid: Yes, very afraid.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.