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Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 2000 / 19 Tishrei, 5761

Roger Simon

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Will the candidates ever 'get real'? -- Suddenly, the presidential race just doesn't seem that funny anymore.

Maybe Dumbo vs. Pinocchio is a good match-up for late-night comedy, but with U.S. sailors being blown to bits in Yemen, the Mideast in flames and a stock market as unreliable as a daily tracking poll, a new sense of seriousness, if not outright gloom, has descended on the White House sweepstakes.

The public seems even more exhausted than the candidates. TV viewership of the presidential debates is paltry compared with previous years, and maybe the polls are so screwy because people just don't care who wins.

"Eight years of peace and prosperity have a big downside," one Al Gore aide moaned. "Now the public thinks anybody can run the country."

The debates, which were supposed to be crystallizing and decisive, have been muddled and inconclusive. Hardly the killing fields that Gore once imagined would spell doom for George W. Bush, they've become a test of whether Gore can seem sufficiently likable to the American people to win their votes.

But the stakes have become so high and the media scrutiny so savage that in the second debate Gore was defensive and muzzled to the point that he seemed to be sitting in a crouch.

It was after this debate -- one in which Bush pronounced all words correctly but almost gleefully misstated the number of "thugs" that he was going to put to death in Texas for the murder of James Byrd Jr. -- that Bush's senior aide Karen Hughes said, "Tell him he just became the president of the United States."

If it were only that easy.

There is still the small matter of getting more votes than Gore on Nov. 7. With the polls taking more swings than Tarzan looking for Jane, the electoral vote count estimated by the political newsletter Hotline last Friday presented the kind of jumble that has come to characterize this contest:

If you assign votes based on "reputable state polls" that show Gore ahead, then he has 281 electoral votes -- 11 more than he needs for victory -- to Bush's 227. But not so fast there.

If you count only those polls that show one candidate or the other ahead beyond the mysterious "margin of error," then Bush leads Gore with 127 electoral votes to 92.

Best guess: It's anybody's race, and with both candidates terrified of making a mistake by attempting anything that approaches boldness, it may stay that way until Election Day.

"A deadening political correctness has settled over the debates," said Rutgers political scientist Ross K. Baker. "The reason why people find them so uninteresting is because they're little more than dueling litanies."

The campaigns have also selected dueling strategies, and both seem to be willing to go down to the wire with them, whatever flaws they might present. Even bad strategy, the current political thinking holds, is better than no strategy at all.

Gore has not dropped his populist crusade pitting working families against the wealthy, but has now married it to his attack on the "Texas record" of George Bush.

Texas ranks "49th out of the 50 states in ... children with health care, 49th for women with health car, and 50th for families with health care" not because Bush is a bad man, Gore said during last week's debate, but because the money was directed instead "toward a tax cut, a significant part of which went to wealthy interests" and "oil companies."

Any time a governor runs for president -- and 16 of them have graduated to the Oval Office -- the standing of his state is going to be attacked. In 1988, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush attacked the "Massachusetts record" of Michael Dukakis to good effect (though Willie Horton probably had more to do with Bush's victory than did the condition of Boston Harbor). But in 1992, President Bush attacked the "Arkansas record" of Bill Clinton to little effect.

So Gore's new attack strategy is anything but a sure thing. And Bush's reply -- "There's only been one governor ever elected to back-to-back four-year terms (in Texas), and that was me" -- is a classic and sometimes convincing defense.

Bush continues to stake his political future not just on a promise of a huge, across-the-board tax cut, but on attacking the Al Gore who "says one thing but does another" and who will do anything to become president.

On the day after the second debate, George Bush strode into Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pa., and told the crowd, "Gore represents the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but all he has to offer is fear itself."

Yet as the Mideast crisis intensifies and as America brings home its dead from Yemen, such political to-ing and fro-ing can appear both irrelevant and juvenile.

Which is not to say that the campaigns are about to suspend operations. In fact, both are figuring the angles of the twin crises: Does a more dangerous world argue for an experienced Washington leader with an expansive foreign-policy vision?

"We have to protect our capacity to push forward what America's all about," the vice president argued during the last debate.

On the other hand, does the USS Cole tragedy point out what Bush has been saying about an over-extended, "nation-building" military?

"We can't be all things to all people," Bush declared. "I am worried about overcommitting our military around the world."

It is a common football metaphor that when a candidate has a comfortable lead in the last weeks of a campaign, he "falls on the ball" to make sure he does nothing to blow his advantage. In this race, however, the candidates aren't sure where they are on the playing field, what the score is or who's got the ball.

That could argue for a bold, risk-taking last three weeks of campaigning, as the candidates try to break the logjam, or for both men to continue their weary plodding to the finish line.

So far, all signs indicate these guys would rather be tortoises than hares.

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