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Jewish World Review Aug. 3, 1999 /21 Av, 5759

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Paddling upstream --
A YEAR AGO at Washington cocktail parties, Clinton administration alumni were talking smugly about "the third term." Now you hear Clinton appointees talking about not staying in "until the bitter end." A year ago there was confidence that the Clinton formula could work again, and elect a Democratic House to boot. Now the formula doesn't seem to be working, and Gore backers lament that he is far behind "for no damned reason."

Behind he is. In January and February, when impeachment dominated the news, voters wanted Bill Clinton to stay in office but favored George W. Bush over Al Gore by 50 percent to 40 percent in public polls. In 34 polls from March to July, Bush led Gore by 54 percent to 37 percent. Public polls in 23 states show New York, Tennessee, Minnesota, and Hawaii within the margin of error and Bush with significant leads in 19. These numbers look like the Reagan-Mondale race in 1984; it is as if the Clinton-Gore victories of the 1990s never happened.

This could change, of course. Gore strategists point out that Michael Dukakis led George Bush by similar margins up through August 1988. Then Bush took advantage of the spotlight of the Republican convention and got out from under the shadow every president casts over his vice president. The same thing could happen this cycle. There is widespread satisfaction with the economy, and many Clinton-Gore policies test well in polls and focus groups. Gore's abilities, like Dan Quayle's, are greater than the voters think. His labored, wooden style of speaking, while irritating, is not disqualifying. He performed superbly in debates against Ross Perot in 1993 and Jack Kemp in 1996 (though not against Quayle in 1992).

But there are troubling signs. Gore strategists intend to link the Republican nominee to an extremist Republican Party. But how extremist are Republicans to most voters? From January through March, nine polls asking which party's candidate voters would prefer in House races found Democrats ahead 45 percent to 39 percent. But six polls since April show a statistical tie, 42 percent to 41 percent. This question has underestimated Republican performance in 1990s elections; the recent polls are the Republicans' best in the entire decade. Plus, the Democrats' juiciest target, Newt Gingrich, has disappeared.

The Clinton factor. Gore has another problem, named Bill Clinton. Voters respect Clinton's performance but are unfavorable to him personally; they wanted to keep him in office in 1998, but they want to replace him in 2000 with someone with honesty, morality, and dignity. Clinton has been campaigning for Gore as no president has campaigned for his vice president in American history. But the White House cleared the field too much, leaving just Bill Bradley as the repository to anyone who has a problem with Gore: He has raised impressive sums of money and attracted endorsements from leftish Sen. Paul Wellstone and moderate Sen. Bob Kerrey. The course of Gore's campaign so far–a big staff shake-up, a possibly overlarge staff, excessive spending on overhead–suggests an unsteadiness that could hurt him. The campaign always reflects the candidate, and so far the signs about Gore are mixed.

In some ways the campaign seems Gore-ish: the long speeches with intellectually serious policy proposals. But sometimes it seems Clintonish. One such occasion was in July, when Gore and the husband of New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen paddled a canoe down the Connecticut River–just long enough for a photo op, of course. It was good footage, with the environment-conscious candidate in a luscious setting. A little too luscious, perhaps. River levels are low in New England and much of the country this summer, and Sharon Fran-cis, head of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, was worried that the candidate might go aground, and just before he was scheduled to announce a $100,000 grant to the commission. Although she says Gore's staff asked for no special treatment, she ordered that a PG&E dam upstream release large amounts of water to keep the Gore canoe afloat. Gore, when asked about the water release, said he knew nothing about it, but Francis said she told him. Gore's spokesman came up with a convoluted explanation of how Gore could have misunderstood her. Then it was angrily argued that the Washington Times erred when it said 4 billion gallons of water were released, and that only 97 million gallons were–as if that made any difference. The point of the story is the apparent tension between Gore's environmentalism and the reaction, according to the Times, of Vermont's Democratic-appointed natural resources director: "They won't release water for the fish when we ask them to, but somehow they find themselves able to release it for a politician." Later, the man said the quote was inaccurate and complained that the Times reporter "had no press badge or notebook visible": the equivalent of the legal defense of "I didn't have a gun and I shot in self-defense."

The self-righteous unnecessary lie, the implausible explanation, the irrelevant argument–all pure Clinton. This is a minor incident, and perhaps atypical. But similar behavior could prove fatal during the few weeks when most voters pay attention.

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.


07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©1999, Michael Barone