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Jewish World Review July 6, 2000 /3 Tamuz, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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A textbook campaign: Bush makes hay before the convention lights shine --
GEORGE W. BUSH has, so far, used the months between clinching a contested nomination in the spring and the conventions in the summer better than any other presidential candidate in history. Since candidates started sewing up nominations early–the first was Jimmy Carter, in 1976–these months have always seemed a golden opportunity to present a general-election message. Yet, no one has used them to much advantage–until now.

How has Bush done it? First, by staking out substantive positions on major issues. This is what high-minded critics always urge; it turns out to be good political advice. It did not happen by accident. In 1998, while still running for re-election as governor, Bush sat down for tutoring sessions with serious thinkers like political scientist James Q. Wilson and former Secretary of State George Shultz. From these meetings, the candidate evidently developed a sense of what direction he wanted policy to go. In 1999, he hired experts–investment banker Josh Bolten, former Federal Reserve gov-ernor Lawrence Lindsey, Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, ex-Stanford University Provost Condoleezza Rice–to produce such policies and set up a shop to vet issues in a process much like that of the White House. Then, sensing that voters were ready to listen, they rolled out original policies on a carefully disciplined schedule.

These were not just the checklist issues of party pressure groups or the recycled wish lists of past officeholders–which is what nominees usually tend to trot out. On education and Social Security, Bush proposed fresh initiatives that go far beyond those of previous Republican nominees. His tax program includes provisions to help low-income, single mothers who are working. His foreign-policy planks have been much more coherent, comprehensive, and specific than those offered by other governors after winning nomination. These initiatives have paid off. In the recent bipartisan Battleground Poll, Bush is slightly ahead of Al Gore on the traditionally Democratic issues of Social Security and education. In a campaign year when no single issue is dominant, Bush has set the agenda and seized two of the opposition's favorite issues.

Deflecting attack. Stressing original issues has helped Bush avoid diversions and stand up to reporters. One job of the press is to bring up issues a candidate would rather not talk about, and today's news media do this especially when they disagree with a candidate's stand. Bush has managed to avoid news cycles dominated by hostile questions on abortion and gun control. Directly in the line of fire in the recent media war against the death penalty, Bush has shown consistency and seriousness. He has also chosen fine venues for events. The Bush campaign has very often placed the candidate among black and Hispanic children, for instance, giving the impression that he cares about minorities and the poor. It helps that Bush seems genuinely comfortable at these events.

It also helps that he maintains the right tone. Americans this year prefer consensus to confrontation. Bush, although the candidate of the out-party, has campaigned on an upbeat note with positive messages and only a sprinkling of negative comments about his opponent. In contrast, Gore has been pummeling Bush for months with negative rhetoric as harsh as what he hurled at his presidential rivals in 1988 and in his debates with Dan Quayle, Ross Perot, and Jack Kemp. He called one Bush foreign policy speech both "Cold Warrior" and "isolationist"–a self-parody better suited to Saturday Night Live than to campaign year 2000, and one that overshadowed his own serious speeches on the subject. Gore has made a midcourse correction and dropped the harsh tone. Bush has been able to keep a steady course.

One big advantage Bush has over Gore is that he has run in a seriously contested general election before. Gore's only tough races have been his 1976 primary for the House, which he won with high turnout from home-base counties, and his 1988 presidential race, which he lost in the primaries. His Republican opponents in Tennessee were little known and lightly funded. Bush has been a candidate in two general elections–a 1978 House race, which he lost, and the 1994 race for governor, which he won. That victory was anything but a given: Texas was prospering, and Gov. Ann Richards had a 60 percent job-approval rating. But Bush, starting early, sculpted original positions on four major issues and campaigned relentlessly on them for months. He was always careful to refer to Richards respectfully–"Well spoken, Governor," he began in their one debate, after Richards praised a Houston disaster volunteer–he avoided diversions, and he won by a solid 53 percent to 46 percent. In 1999 and 2000, he followed the same course as in 1993 and 1994. There is no guarantee that he can hold to this course, nor that it will be enough to win. He may have a disappointing convention. He may crumble in debate. He may lose focus. Gore may be able to convince voters that they are closer to him on issues or that Bush's programs are "risky schemes." But so far Bush has run a textbook race, while Gore is still stumbling through his first seriously contested, general election campaign.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


06/23/00: Beat the press
06/06/00: Reining in regulators: Will the Supreme Court clip Washington's wings?
05/25/00: In plain English: Bilingual education flunks out of schools in California
04/28/00: Gore in the balance: His book reveals a fanatical approach to the environment
04/04/00: President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears
03/14/00: Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans
03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone