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Jewish World Review June 2, 2000/ 28 Iyar, 5760


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Consumer Reports

Bush rolls boxcars -- EVERY DAY that goes by this spring only strengthens George W. Bush's standing with voters and the media. Al Gore continually claims that polls don't matter at this point and that the electorate isn't paying attention. But what's he supposed to say, that he's had a disastrous post-primary period and is in danger of losing the election?

In one sense, Gore is right: the public at large isn't tuned into politics. And guess what? Come October, the World Series, gasoline prices, the upcoming holidays and personal triumphs and hardships will still trump politics. It's not as if the entire country will hang on every word that Gore or Bush says-hell, half the adult population in the United States doesn't even vote.

As I've written before, a key component to a winning political campaign is luck-and Bush keeps rolling double-sixes. The Boston Globe's Walter V. Robinson, a tough reporter, printed a story on May 23 that reported that Bush, as a member of the Texas Air National Guard, didn't report for duty for a period of more than a year in the early 70s. Bush was in Alabama, working on a '72 Senate campaign, and in military records obtained by the Globe, there's no evidence he attended Guard drills in that state, as he was required to do. Bush responded to Robinson's story by saying, "I did the duty necessary... That's why I was honorably discharged."

Ultimately, Bush probably did dodge some drills in order to pursue other interests; and the fact that he spent an inordinate amount of time back in Texas fulfilling his Guard mandate in early '73, before going on to Harvard Business School, suggests the equivalent of skipping a bunch of college classes and then cramming for the finals. None of which was vital to the security of the United States then, but can you imagine the impact this story would've had at the height of the South Carolina and Michigan primaries? An infatuated media would've blasted Bush on behalf of former POW McCain, and the Texas Governor might still be waging a fight for the GOP nomination.

The elite media is reacting to Bush's surge, and Gore's surprisingly Dukakis-like campaign, in strange ways. For example, The Washington Post, which obviously is in favor of Gore but has nonetheless remained less partisan than the shameless New York Times, has started to understand that the Vice President might not be able to inherit Clinton's job. On May 26, the Post's Robert Kaiser wrote an article, headlined "Is This Any Way to Pick a Winner?," that examined a study by six political scientists who've accurately predicted the presidential winner in most of the last 13 contests, although the only two examples cited extensively were the reelections of Bill Clinton in '96 and Ronald Reagan in '84, not exactly cliffhangers. But the model that men like the University of Iowa's Michael Lewis-Beck and the University of Buffalo's James E. Campbell use seems fairly sound: it's based on the economy, and given today's boom it's no wonder that the academics are united in predicting a Gore victory.

However, the studies largely ignore the intangibles of any given campaign. In this year's, for example, there's the "Clinton Fatigue" factor, the desire for change after eight years of Democratic White House rule and the plain fact that Gore hasn't presented himself as a likable or competent candidate on the stump. Sure, he defeated Bradley, overcoming a rocky start that was hampered by a bloated overhead and overconfidence, but that came with a price. He lied about Bradley's record, lied about his own and came across as a man who simply attacks his opponent and offers no specific ideas of his own.


It may work against Bush as well this fall. But there are differences between the Bradley and Bush campaigns. Where the former New Jersey senator was above it all, refusing for most of the campaign to strike back against Gore's disgraceful distortions of his positions, Bush's team reacts within a half hour-reminding one of Clinton's successful "War Room" strategy of '92-and usually ups the ante.

Also, a robust economy didn't do Prime Minister John Major a fat lot of good in 1997. He was buried in a Labor Party landslide, despite the fact that voters "liked" him more than Clinton-clone Tony Blair. Brits were simply ready for a change after so many years of Tory dominance, first with Margaret Thatcher and then Major.

However, what's most striking about Kaiser's story is that the Post chose to print it on the front page, despite the fact that there was no conceivable defense that the article had any "news" value. A valid and interesting op-ed submission, certainly; but its placement tells me that Post editors are concerned that Gore's rickety (not to mention "risky") campaign is tumbling out of control. After all, Gore's incompetent press secretary, Chris Lehane, says that the Veep's mission is to introduce himself to voters.

Say what? As if we haven't had more than our fill of Gore since 1992.

In a May 25 New York Times article, Rep. Charles Rangel, who stands to become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in a Dick Gephardt-led House of Representatives, told reporter Katharine Q. Seelye: "People are starting to ask, 'When does [Gore] get started? When does he get focused? How did Bush catch up? When does the show hit the road?'... They're saying, 'If this is a policy to lay back and wait for the debates, then share it with somebody!' There's no fiery speeches being given; we don't have surrogates out there."

New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, in the same article, tried to advance a more positive analysis of Gore's plight, saying, "Until Al Gore goes to Los Angeles and receives the party's nomination and campaigns in his own right, he will still be identified by most Americans as Bill Clinton's vice president. There is still not a separate identity, and only the dramatic departure from Los Angeles is going to create this new identity."

Left unsaid is the worry that Clinton will never let go, that he'll continue to shadow Gore's campaign for better or worse. He's a champion fundraiser, but also a vivid reminder of the scandals that plagued his wasted eight years as president. (Keep your typing fingers in check, Clinton partisans. This president had the fortune to preside over an economy that roared despite his best efforts to derail it-remember universal health care and the debilitating '93 tax increase? And most of his accomplishments, all post-'94, have to be shared with the Republican-led Congress that forced him back to the political center.) Unlike Ronald Reagan, who let George Bush emerge as his own man early in the '88 campaign, saying, "Win one for the Gipper"-horribly corny, but the GOP base ate it up-Clinton won't let go of any campaign unless he's forcibly removed.

In addition, Gore has the peculiar distraction of the President's wife's running in the most high-profile Senate race of 2000, draining money, media attention and volunteers from his cause.

Gore's in such a fix right now that he dispatched consultant Robert Shrum to order up a positive column from shill-for-Democratic-hire Thomas Oliphant, the laughingstock of DC's press corps. Last Sunday, Oliphant dutifully wrote in The Boston Globe: "Here's a classic example of the kind of thing that drives Al Gore to distraction. A former reporter, Gore is making the classic politician's goof in thinking that what appears in print or on the air has any significant bearing on whether he does or doesn't get elected president." Job well done, Tommy: we'll send McAuliffe over to the pad with an autographed golfball from Bill Clinton.

And Gore can forget about his typically brazen attempt to co-opt John McCain. After the McAuliffe soft-money bonanza last week, the subject of a glowing June 5 article by Time reporter Michael Weisskopf, the Arizona Senator was plainly disgusted. McCain's reaction to the faux-populist gathering: "The event tonight has aroused...suspicions of malfeasance and corruption for any objective observer to the political process."

But other reporters and pundits have, as Bush has advanced bold proposals (even if they're admittedly short on details), reacted less reflexively against the Republican nominee-in-waiting. For example, Jack Germond, the septuagenarian reporter whose best days are behind him, a nasty and paleoliberal piece of work who savaged President Bush, has actually praised the Texas Governor for his recent campaign efforts.


Writing with Jules Witcover in the May 26 Baltimore Sun after Bush's foreign policy address with Powell, Kissinger, etc., Germond said: "This is good politics. Foreign policy issues rarely make any difference in presidential elections as long as the national security is not threatened. All that is required is for the presidential candidate to persuade voters he would be a safe choice... The bottom line for Americans on most of these matters is whether they can trust those who have the expertise to provide the right solutions. As the governor of Texas and the former owner of a baseball team, George W. Bush doesn't automatically qualify as an expert. But he is acting aggressively to show voters he is a prudent man with access to all the experts."

Back in February, as Bush was battling with media darling McCain, it was inconceivable that such words would slosh forward from Germond's keyboard.

Even editorialists at The Boston Globe, in the absence of anything positive to say about Gore's campaign, have doled out grudging praise to Bush, a turn of events that's nothing short of remarkable. In a May 26 edit, the Globe wrote: "If the ideas on security that George W. Bush offered Tuesday are indicative of the coming presidential campaign, the election may be more interesting and substantive than the pundits are predicting. Bush might be tantalizingly vague about some matters, but the issues he addressed concern the gravest responsibilities of a commander-in-chief. As Bush properly noted, there is a need to question premises of the nation's nuclear doctrine that have remained largely unchanged and unexamined since the sudden end of the Cold War... In this as in his other proposals, Bush displays a welcome inclination to take a fresh look at costly and dangerous old assumptions."

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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