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Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2000/ 11 Elul, 5760

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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When it's time for
a thumb in the eye


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- GEORGE W. BUSH was supposed to whip Al Gore without breaking a sweat. You could have asked anybody.

George W. himself never actually said he would put Al away so quickly. But in those heady days in Philadelphia, when a lobbyist couldn't play a round of golf with a party biggie for less than a hundred grand and you couldn't step into the street without getting run over by a truck delivering another ton of shrimp to a victory party, neither George W. nor his merry men said anything to discourage the popping of the champagne corks.

The magic words of the week were "manners" and "civility," and a fortnight later you might have thought Pollyanna had written the Republican script for how to behave in the wake of Al Gore's convention in Los Angeles.

Nobody did anything to interrupt the bounce in the days following, either no attack ads, no plump thumb in Al's eye, no quick knee to Joe Lieberman's groin, none of the stuff James Carville (or the late Lee Atwater) would have applied with a cheerful grin and twinkling eye. Not since the little Duke failed to come out after the bell in Atlanta in '88 had such a deafening silence fallen over the hustings. Nobody awake could have been surprised.

"I guess some of my supporters wanted it to be a runaway," George W. said yesterday, trying to dissolve the jitters of his late-summer soldiers without sounding sheepish. "The vice president is running a strong race, but so am I. I'm under no illusions and neither should our supporters be."

But lots of them were. The illusions are gone now. The governor tried to brush away the jitters as inside-the-Beltway stuff, fed by the usual suspects in print and tube. "That's Washington," he said. "That's the place where you find people getting ready to jump out of the foxholes before the first shot is fired."

True enough, but the guys in the foxholes, to use the governor's metaphor, expect to hear the heavy pounding of their own artillery behind them, and those guns fell silent as George W. slept through the lull between the primaries and the conventions, lulled by the kind treatment he got at the hands of many of the reporters traveling with him. He forgot, as Republicans invariably do, that when the shooting starts most of the boys and girls on the campaign plane will be shooting at Republicans. It's not a conspiracy, it's a consensus. It's what press sheep do, and railing about it is as foolish as railing about heat in August or snow in January.

But the graveyards of Washington are full of Republicans who thought they could hustle The Washington Post or the New York Times. That's what Philadelphia was all about, with its incessant chorus of compassion, forbearance, kindness, empathy and mercy for all, trying to persuade the press to persuade the voters that "we're not as bad as you think we are." Even Dick Armey, who knows better, insisted that the campaign would be about civility. For a few days it seemed to work. But no successful campaign is about civility.

The trick is to say it is when it's not, but only the Democrats, with their natural allies in the media, can get away with a trick like that. That's why Al Gore attacks George W. for attacking him, and hears only an amen chorus.

Al understands the iron rule of campaigning, that political passion is driven by anger and hostility. Despite what everyone likes to think about himself, it's far more fun to vote against someone you detest than to vote for someone you like. Politics is about driving up the negatives, and nobody works harder than Al to make voters detest his opponents. You could ask Bill Bradley.

The good news for the Bush campaign is that Republican strategists say privately the Pollyanna approach is about to change. The good stuff the Democrats and the amen chorus will call it "the dirty stuff" is on the way. When they do, the Republicans will have the proof it's dead-on.

The conventional wisdom, which is usually wrong but not always, is that "it's the economy, stupid," and with the best economy in decades only just beginning to simmer down, Al Gore has a Labor Day lead just barely outside the margin of error. George W. trails in most national polls by almost exactly the margin by which JFK trailed in 1960, Reagan in 1980.

Al ought to be comfortably ahead, but he's not, because the polls also show that most voters think he's shifty, shady if not dishonest, and they just don't like him. George W., on the other hand, looks honest, straightforward and most voters like him. If the Republicans pound these impressions deep into the national consciousness, the governor wins. If they allow Al to talk about compassion health care, prescription drugs, Social Security the veep does.

Naughty wins, nice loses.


JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

Up

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05/22/00: A fine opportunity to set an example
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05/10/00: Listening to the voice of an authentic man
05/08/00: First a lot of bluster, then the retreat
05/02/00: Good news for Rudy, bad news for Hillary
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04/25/00: Spooked by Castro, Bubba blinks
04/14/00: One flag down and two memorials to go
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03/24/00: Dissing a president can ruin a whole day
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03/14/00: The risky business of making an apology
03/10/00: The pouters bugging a weary John McCain
03/07/00: When all good things (sob) come to an end

© 2000 Wes Pruden