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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2000/ 17 Tishrei, 5761


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Gore Melts Down;
Race-Baiting Comes Next -- WEDNESDAY NIGHT'S debate in North Carolina was unquestionably the triumph of Gov. George W. Bush's political career to date.

Even though his knockout victory was muted in the news cycle by cataclysmic events in the Mideast -- propelling Al Gore to show up at the White House on official business for the first time since June -- Bush has allayed doubts, just as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, that he's up to the job. If the Governor's Austin strategic team is smart, they'll gather Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condeleezza Rice and Norman Schwarzkopf for a press conference about the current unrest. While supporting Bill Clinton, Bush's potential national security team can make clear that if America is threatened or terrorized, the new president will actly swiftly and decisively. In this way, the public will see a preview of a Bush administration in action.

Although Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican Convention two months ago was a GOP base-solidifying success, proving he could read a teleprompter and a ghostwritten address with agility, the exchange with Al Gore in Winston-Salem was infinitely more important to the election. Bush was fortunate last week at the first debate in Boston, where he was nervous and barely articulate about international policy. His main task at that encounter was to speak in recognizable English and present an at least coherent vision of how his view of government differed from that of the still-populist Gore. Bush sounded forced when, in response to Gore's relentless distortions of his tax plan, he accused Gore of engaging in "fuzzy math." But he demonstrated that he could at least compete with the debate-king Vice President.

What wasn't expected was that Gore, who creamed Bush on specifics, would act so effeminate and rude, thus mitigating the force of his superior answers to moderator Jim Lehrer's questions. In addition, Gore's numerous distortions, exaggerations and panderings to the "real people" he imported to Boston as props were so off-putting that the mainstream media spent most of the subsequent week concentrating on his credibility.

So, coming into Wednesday's debate, Gore was in meltdown mode. All the major polls were showing a trend toward Bush. Gore's top advisers had repeatedly trashed Bush on tv. Gore deputy campaign manager Mark Fabiani said on CNN that Bush "was incoherent, he was babbling" at a Florida appearance. Chris Lehane, Gore's number-one staff liability, aside from Donna Brazile, said last Sunday: "The governor will be held to presidential standards when it comes to the explaining of his public policy views. Thus far, he has not met the Quayle standard."

One wonders where Lehane learned about "presidential standards," given that he's been a participant in the Clinton-Gore moral car wreck. And lay off Quayle, lapdog Lehane. In terms of the breadth of his proposals, the unfairly maligned former vice president happened to be the class of the GOP field a year ago.


Gore admitted to interviewers that he had exaggerated during the Boston debate, and that he intended to moderate his schoolmarm persona. But the problem for Gore was that without his arsenal of slash-and-burn tactics ("the politics of personal destruction," as President Clinton might say), without his outright lies and his attempts to dominate the debate, he was effectively muzzled. As a result, during the Wednesday debate, Gore was on his best behavior -- for him, that is. At several points in the 90-minute session the Veep would allude to his self-imposed restrictions. For example, at one point, Lehrer said: "Let's move on... No, let's move on." Gore, obviously disgusted at being seated in the Manners Penalty Box, replied, "Far be it from me to suggest otherwise."

Bush spoke eloquently about the absurdity of national hate-crimes legislation, saying of the killers of Texan James Byrd: "Well, in this case, when you murder somebody, it's hate, Jim. Crime is hate. And they got the ultimate punishment. I=92m not exactly sure how you enhance the penalty any more than the death penalty."

Gore then asked the moderator, "May I respond?" Given a green light,= he started by saying, "I don't want to jump in." Later, when the two candidates violated the rules by questioning each other, Lehrer said to Gore, "Hold that thought." Gore replied, "I've been trying so hard not to." And after apologizing again for getting some "details" wrong in the first debate, Gore said, "I'm going to try to do better," in a tone that I thought was imbued with sarcasm.

Finally, after Gore made a halfhearted attempt to con viewers into believing he hadn't seen his own campaign's latest round of negative commercials, in which Bush is essentially called a retard, the Vice President said, "I don't use language like that, and I don't think that we should." Upon hearing the pejorative term that Gore's operatives have applied to him, Bush laughed and said, "Wait a minute!" It was a crowd-pleasing, aw-shucks moment for the Governor.

But Gore, growing testy, continued: "I think the point of that is that anybody would have a hard time trying to make a tax cut plan that's so large that would put us into such big deficits that gives almost half the benefits to the wealthiest of the wealthy..."

Bush: "That's the kind of exaggeration I was just talking about."

Gore: "Well, I wasn'tthe one having trouble explaining."

So it was a neutered Gore in North Carolina, and Bush was the clear winner of the debate. But it wasn'tonly Gore's relative restraint that led to the outcome. The first half of the session was concerned with foreign relations, and Bush surprised everyone on the planet who happened to be watching by giving cogent, articulate answers. He and Gore agreed on the current Mideast conflict, obviously, but the Governor made clear that the Clinton-Gore administration's Haiti boondoggle hadn't resulted in greater democratic rule, and that as president he'd pick and choose America's battles more wisely.

In addition to shocking reporters by discussing America's involvement in Africa, East Timor and Grenada, Bush gave a clear idea of what his policy would be when it came to foreign aid. He said: "Take, for example, Third World debt. I think we ought to be forgiving Third World debt under certain conditions. I think...if we're convinced that a Third World country that's got a lot of debt would reform itself, that the money wouldn'tgo into the hands of a few, but would go to help people, then I think it'd make sense for us to use our wealth in that way. Or to trade debt for valuable rainforest lands makes eminent sense. Yes, we do have an obligation in the world, but we can'tbe all things to all people. We can help build coalitions, but we can'tput our troops all around the world... We shouldn'tbe lending money to corrupt officials [an obvious dig at Gore's involvement with Russian officials]. So we've got to be guarded in our generosity."

Bush grew more confident as the debate progressed, while the boxed-in Gore seethed. The Governor laughed a lot, was self-deprecating, and even threw in a twangy "What the heck" near the end, showing what a down-to-earth non-Washingtonian he is.


To the delight of diehard conservatives, Bush gave a definitive thumbs-down to gay marriage, while Gore waffled, just as Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman had six days earlier. Bush hammered home his position on strengthening the military, and he went on at length about his pet issue, education. When Gore tried to depict Texas as a fourth-world hellhole, Bush smashed him like the cockroach he is, pointing out that he'd won his second term as Texas governor by a landslide, with 50 percent of the Hispanic vote and more than a quarter of the black vote.

Bush was even stronger in discussing the need to cut taxes. In his conclusion, he said: "And finally, I do believe in tax relief... I don't believe, like the Vice President does, in huge government. I believe in limited government. And by having a limited government and a focused government, we can send some of the money back to the people that pay the bills. I want to have tax relief for all people who pay the bills in America because I think you can spend your money more wisely than the federal government can."

The election is now less than four weeks away, and Bush has regained the upper hand. I suspect that by next week's final debate in St. Louis he'll be leading most polls by about 3 points, which means, much to Gore's consternation, that this contest will more resemble that of 1960 than that of 1988. The main task for Bush is to keep campaigning as an underdog and not become complacent: that's what got him into trouble before the New Hampshire primary and after the Democratic Convention. He has to get out on the hustings every day -- I'll bet his crowds will grow in size after Wednesday's performance -- and work for every vote. People forget that Bush is a spectacular retail politician. He might not be as good as Bill Clinton, but it's a close call. Bush likes meeting and schmoozing people; it's a demeaning chore for Gore.

Obviously, the big worry for the Bush camp is a major, election-turning gaffe.

But Gore faces a more serious challenge. Having forsworn personal attacks on Bush, and tamped down his populist rhetoric, where does he go? I suppose he could try to make an economic case for himself and the Clinton-Gore administration, but it'll take more than that, since the prosperity was created by entrepreneurs, a Republican Congress and Clinton's willingness to ditch his wife's socialist healthcare plan and move to the political center.

The polls will continue to fluctuate, and it's a certainty that both campaigns will get ugly in the final weeks. Look for Gore's subterranean ghouls to race-bait, make insinuations about Bush's personal life, slur his record in Texas and call attention to his maddening tendency to butcher grammar and syntax.

However, if Bush can win in St. Louis, or least score a draw, Gore will have a hard time energizing his Democratic base, let alone independents. All along, that's been the big worry of the Gore campaign: turnout. For example, no one really expects Bush to win California, but if he comes within five points, that's going to help House candidates. Similarly, if he can stave off a massacre in New York, it'll be to Rick Lazio's advantage in his Senate race against Hillary Clinton.

In another week, the political landscape might be completely different. It's been a one-of-a-kind campaign. But this weekend, I wouldn't want to be within 100 miles of Al Gore, who must be muttering to himself, over and over and over, "Oh, no."

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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