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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2000/ 5 Shevat, 5760


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Isn’t This a New Century? -- I HAVE a friend who insists the new year doesn’t really begin until Jan. 20: His birthday. That’s Baltimore folklore, but in politics the 2000 race has changed dramatically during the first two weeks of January.

First, Sen. John McCain’s presidential fantasy is all but busted; the reporters he’d thought were permanently schmoozed are by and large filing more critical articles on the faux-“maverick.” As Gov. George W. Bush gains more confidence in the debates and directly challenges McCain on core GOP issues like taxes, accurately accusing him of presenting a Democratic agenda, the Arizona Senator’s always-corny sense of humor wears thin, and he doesn’t even crack himself up. That’s what happens when your main issue—campaign finance reform—blows up after revelations of greasing the wheels for contributors.

On Jan. 6, the liberal Boston Globe editorialized: “A McCain spokesman said, ‘It gets down to appearances, and there’s nothing beyond the appearances.’ But that’s the problem. With public confidence in the balance, appearances count enormously. Under the existing system, unfortunately, it would be folly for a presidential candidate to run without aggressive fundraising. But candidates running as reformers would do well to avoid overt actions that tarnish their position.”

What McCain and his advisers, besotted by the most remarkable example of a fawning mainstream media in at least a generation—don’t tell me about Bruce Babbitt; the two campaigns aren’t even comparable for press sycophancy—must not understand is that no one ever wins the GOP presidential nomination by running to the party’s left. Because the media is so clueless, they’ve concentrated on McCain’s “straight” talk and ignored the other candidates. Thus, no one to the right of Bush gets attention and the Texas Governor gets a free ride. As I’ve said for months, luck is a key ingredient of a winning presidential campaign.

As a result, Joe Klein’s behind-the-curve profile of McCain in this week’s New Yorker notwithstanding, the Senator’s campaign is now on life support.

I suspect McCain, now that the impossible bubble has burst, isn’t all that disappointed. After all, before the inexplicable media rush to record every one of his words, to extol the physical courage he showed in Vietnam, McCain was really set on one position: defense secretary in Bush’s administration.
That’s a fine spot for him: during the Kosovo intervention last year, McCain appeared more presidential than the poll-driven Bill Clinton and won over conservatives like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and Wall Street Journal board member Dorothy Rabinowitz. I think their infatuation with McCain was misplaced—did they forget his tax-increase tobacco bill and teaming up with Democrat Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform?—but perhaps understandable as Bush, for a short but rough patch, got the Quayle treatment from the media.

Last Thursday, in a column that signaled where The Wall Street Journal stands on the election, editor Robert Bartley wrote that McCain would be better suited for a ceremonial role, American Hero Emeritus. To me, that was a message that the Journal has now completely joined forces with Bush (its favored candidate Forbes was such a washout this cycle that the paper lobbied in vain that he run for the open New Jersey Senate seat) and will editorialize vigorously against Al Gore in the coming months.

Bartley wrote, in what was the most significant article about McCain in months: “You can argue about how well Mr. Clinton has performed as head of government. My own view is that the system worked because the electorate sent him a GOP Congress as a balance wheel, but clearly the republic does enjoy prosperity and what passes for peace. There is little room for argument, though, that as chief of state Mr. Clinton has proved a total embarrassment, a lecher and a liar. The people are hungry for a better king.

“So our sensitive political system has found the one American best cast as king. A hereditary military hero, who proved his personal bravery as a prisoner in Hanoi while Bill Clinton was protesting at Oxford (along with a lot of present-day McCain supporters)... McCain for chief of state! Head of government is another matter. Without in the least denigrating symbolism, some of us believe substance is even more important. Good kings, despite the fame of some of them, are not necessarily good political leaders.
The first requirement of a leader is a vision of where you want to go. George W. Bush has assembled a team of leading issue experts and offers a road map of what he would try to do as president. By contrast, Sen. McCain tends to turn each issue into a matter of character. What matters is not policy goals but personal honor—the royal approach.”

I think Bartley is far too kind to McCain, especially with that “character” bit, and I believe Clinton was correct in protesting the Vietnam War, but for the most part the Journal editor sums up the Arizona Senator’s quixotic candidacy quite neatly.

As for the Democrats, I’m afraid that Gore will win the nomination, despite all the miscues his campaign continues to roll out every week, stumbling at every opportunity. The reason is simple, and it was demonstrated most aptly in last Wednesday’s debate in New Hampshire: Bradley looks and speaks like he’s 20 years older than his opponent. No doubt the rigors of the campaign have caught up with him, but the former senator is given to long, laconic answers, often slurs his words, has bags under his eyes that stretch down to his size-32 shoes, and still refuses to attack Gore in the cutthroat manner that’s both required and deserved. He communicates reluctance and fatigue with his body language and appearance. I don’t care much for Bradley’s politics—he’s a Big Government liberal who’d set back America’s economic and cultural advances 25 years—but I do get the sense he’s a decent human being.

Gore’s a weasel who now resembles the unholy progeny of Bill and Hillary Clinton, with about 18 dashes of James Carville thrown in. There was Gore last week, flip-flopping on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy he said he’d abolish, until the military criticized him. There was Gore, defending
his racist campaign manager Donna Brazile, even after she issued an inflammatory statement condemning the GOP for insensitivity to blacks and insulting Colin Powell and J.C. Watts for good measure. As Gore should know, you don’t mess around with Powell: he’s attained godlike status in this country, and I imagine this slur has only strengthened his resolve to accept Bush’s expected offer to be his secretary of state.

Gore hammered away at Bradley during the debates last week about banning all commercials for the duration of the primary season, all the while taking no blame for the illegal activities of the Clinton-Gore ’96 campaign. This sanctimony is sickening, even worse than the prospect of Bill Clinton pathetically considering a Senate or House run from Arkansas in the future. Gore continues to bait Bradley with the line that the latter left politics after the Gingrich revolution in ’94 while Gore himself stood and fought the good fight with buddies Dick Gephardt, Charlie Rangel and David Bonior. Please.

Gore was vice president: was he going to resign and throw away his political future?

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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