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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 2000 / 26 Tishrei, 5761

Philip Terzian

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The election is close, but ... -- LET US SUPPOSE, for a moment, that George W. Bush wins the presidency.

It's more than a supposition, according to the polls. Governor Bush has run ahead of Vice President Al Gore throughout most of this year, and except for a brief period after Gore had chosen his running mate and kissed his wife on national television, Bush has remained on top.

It is true that the figures are close -- although some polls show a wider disparity than others -- and it is true that, at last count, some 10 percent of voters have declared themselves undecided. But those undecided voters are not all going to vote for Al Gore. Some will vote for Ralph Nader, and others for Gore; but if trends are anything to go by, more will cast their ballots, in the end, for George W. Bush.

There are other means of detecting such trends. One of my favorites is to monitor press coverage, and the media is clearly furious at the prospect of Gore's defeat. On an almost daily basis, The New York Times runs an heroic front-page color photograph of a smiling Al Gore meeting and mixing with voters, or looking like the alpha male at a poetry reading. If a photograph of George Bush ever appears on the front page, it is generally black and white, small, below the fold, and the Governor looks as if he is about to cough or sneeze. Best of all, the picture is customarily run beside stories with headlines like these: "Bush Career Jump-Started by Family Friends," or "New Study Rates Texas Poorly on (fill in the blank)."

Times columnists are nearly incoherent with rage, or deeply sorrowful, as are most of their Washington Post colleagues. The Post's David Ignatius wrote a sentimental, almost elegaic, tribute to his old prep school pal and classmate, Al Gor, featuring a casual conversation they enjoyed at a recent party, and a (no doubt apocryphal) anecdote about Gore and Canon Martin, the (now conveniently dead) St. Alban's headmaster. If somebody had written a similar stomach-turning tribute to their Andover roomate, George W. Bush, Ignatius would be the first to burst out laughing in print. Michael Kinsley, who edits the Internet webzine, is reduced to referring to Governor Bush as a "moron," and E.J. Dionne Jr. has shifted his attention to House and Senate races. The New Republic, whose proprietor has been (how can I put this delicately?) mesmerized by the Vice President since he first laid eyes on him in 1965, endorsed its favorite candidate with a churlish essay accusing America of being unworthy of Al Gore.

How did this happen? If I were a political scientist, the question to which I would devote my next monograph would be: Why isn't Gore ahead by 25 points? By all conventional measures of politics, this should be a Democratic year. The economy is healthy, America is not at war, and most people profess to be optimistic about the future. Under such circumstances, it has always been difficult for the party out of power to persuade voters to "switch horses in midstream," as the Abraham Lincoln campaign put it in 1864. What makes this year different?

There are three reasons. Reason number one is George W. Bush. The Governor has proved to be a smart, effective strategist and campaigner, has run a generally flawless "outsider" race for the White House, and seems to connect to voters on a personal level. Reason number two is Al Gore. The Vice President has been unable to shake the various political liabilities he acquired in the past eight years, he gets little credit for the health of the economy, and his grating personality is not one of his assets.

Reason number three, however, is Bill Clinton. Journalists have been puzzled why Gore has not made greater use of the President, and The New York Times recently went so far as to pschoanalyze the two men, concluding that Semengate induced a bitter estrangement. Times columnists such as Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins are impressed by the enthusiasm of crowds at Democratic fund-raisers when Bill Clinton speaks: Why doesn't Al Gore draw on this obvious resource?

For two reasons, mainly. First, it is the function of people who attend fund-raising dinners to appear wildly enthusiastic about the entertainment. And second, Bill Clinton is a statistical liability. Nearly half of all Americans surveyed have a distinctly unfavorable opinion of their commander-in-chief, and that is an astonishing, largely unprecedented, figure -- especially in the midst of peace and prosperity. Gore knows that the President is a great campaigner, but he also understands that most of his troubles stem from his close proximity to Bill Clinton. Republicans were always certain that somebody would pay a political price for Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, and his subsequent obstructions of justice and perjury. They just didn't realize that somebody is Al Gore.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Philip Terzian