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Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 2000 /6 Shevat, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Complacency might be the campaign key -- Manchester, N.H. --- Twenty-first century politics is opening with a whimper, not a bang. If people here pine for an exciting, charismatic new president, they don't show it. If they want dramatic change in the national direction, they're keeping that a secret as well.

This apathy clearly benefits the incumbent, Vice President Al Gore, and, for a time, the rival most people expect him to face in November, Texas Gov. George Bush. Both men could win the first-in-the-nation primaries here Feb. 1 and render all the later contests redundant including the Big Casino in California on March 7.

Two factors explain the January complacency: the buoyant economy and the weakness of any other topic to grab voter passions.

Gore clings to the country's current economic strength as if he were defending a one-man lifeboat, batting away anyone who tries to come aboard. He says Bill Bradley's health-care plan would sink the economy as surely as would George W. Bush's big tax cut.

Gore's strategy and tactic are one and the same: present himself as the lone, sure guardian of the best economy in history. Why would any sane, self-interested voter want to dump a successful economic crew if there's any doubt about the proposed replacements?

If Gore can make Bradley and later Bush look like economic risks, he wins the pivotal argument of the campaign.

At the risk of stirring even more voter complacency, I have yet to find any issue other than the economy that could trump it.


With the budget balanced for now, murder and overall crime levels down, welfare reform in place, the Cold War forgotten, much of America seems content to go to work, to see to the kids and to keep an eye on the retirement kitty. "Better dead than red" has been replaced by, "Don't rock the boat."


Bill Bradley, the former Princeton All-American, Olympic and NBA basketball star, is an attractive candidate. If he could make a compelling case for himself and against Gore, he might pull a historic upset, much as Ronald Reagan nearly beat incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976. He hasn't yet, and the clock is running.

Al Gore, who in too many settings exudes all the vitality and warmth of a public figure standing in for himself in a wax museum, has meanwhile shown flashes of his far more appealing private self. At a senior center in Portsmouth he sang "Irish Eyes are Smiling" with Ted Kennedy, made a hip reference to a Woody Allen movie and engaged in a genial back-and-forth with reporters that reminded me for a few, brief shining moments of the playful, confident JFK.

For a nation prosperous and at peace, it might not take much more not in February, not in November.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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12/30/99: Churchill's fighting words saved the century
12/28/99: Candidate Gore's separation anxiety
12/17/99: Catch 22: Leading candidates don't lead
12/17/99: New Democratic leader on the horizon
12/15/99: Is Hillary clueless?
12/08/99: Taking Buchananism to the streets
12/03/99: Why are we so obsessed with 'spin'?
12/01/99: Donald Trump, 'Sinatra of Steel'
11/29/99: Why AlGore will be our next president
11/23/99: After the fall
11/17/99: Our conveniently forgetful president
11/15/99: Next president: Male, WASP, self-selected
11/10/99: Backroom Bill
11/08/99: Please don't feed the 'pander bears'
11/03/99: Battle of the Bubba clones
11/01/99: Pat Buchanan, kamikaze candidate
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10/04/99: Buchanan, Churchill and Hitler
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The FALN: Hillary's Willie Horton
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08/25/99: The seemingly inexhaustible strength of America's free enterprise
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08/16/99: Bubba on Bubba
08/11/99: Hillary's agonizing attempts to understand
08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
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08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

© 2000, NEA