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Jewish World Review Oct. 3, 1999 /3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Going against type --
THE LEADING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES are going against type, making appeals and adopting tactics no one expected at the start of the year.

George W. Bush has taken to bashing his fellow Republicans. Al Gore, in his 23rd year in public office in Washington, has moved his campaign to Nashville. Bill Bradley, who once questioned liberal orthodoxy in the Senate, is now trying to outflank Gore on the left.

So what's happening? Start with Bush, the clear front-runner. On September 30, as House Republicans struggled to square their promise to observe the budget caps with appropriators' desire to maintain spending, Bush took aim at Majority Whip Tom DeLay's proposal to send out Earned Income Tax Credit checks every month rather than once a year. "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," said this Republican of other Republicans. Responded DeLay: "It's obvious Mr. Bush needs a little education on how Congress works."

But most Republicans don't mind. Bush gave his routine stump speech to the Christian Coalition and still got a rousing reception and warm words from Pat Robertson. Last Tuesday, in a major speech on education, Bush said his party "has painted an image of America 'slouching towards Gomorrah' "–the title of Robert Bork's pessimistic book–and "has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself."

But Bush has been making similar points all along.

He concedes that his party is not perfect in projecting an optimistic, consensus-minded picture of a smaller but energetic government working to make sure no one is left out. The tone is similar to the consensus-minded speeches of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, and of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his New Labor party–though the specifics are by no means the same. Like Clinton and Blair, Bush recognizes that voters since the mid-1990s have been tired of crunchy, confrontation-minded politics and prefer a soggy, consensus-minded stance. From his luxury position far ahead in the polls, Bush can afford to take shots at his party–something neither Democratic candidate can afford.

Keyboard politics. Al Gore, still running far behind Bush and now running only even with Bill Bradley in New Hampshire and New York primary polls, is in a different place altogether–Nashville.

His has been an F-key campaign, as if he were trying to push the F keys on a keyboard to get the computer to produce preprogrammed results. F1 is the Clinton economy (no "risky schemes"), F4 is the evil Republican Congress, F11 is Bradley's votes for the Reagan budget cuts in 1981 and school vouchers in 1982. Just hit the F key and opinion will change, goes the theory. But so far, the F keys aren't working.

The bigger problem is that Gore's F-key campaign is mostly crunchy; he contrasts himself with Bradley or congressional Republicans more than he sets out his own vision. That was a plus in the crunchy early 1990s but became a minus in presidential politics by mid-decade. Moreover, many of Gore's arguments appeal mainly to the kind of political insiders who resent Bradley for his decision to retire in 1996 rather than fight Newt Gingrich's Republicans, or for his early 1980s votes for Reagan budget cuts and school vouchers. Opening his new Nashville headquarters Wednesday, Gore promised a "riptootin' " campaign. But his problem is not lack of fervor, nor is it lack of specifics–he has delivered six intellectually serious issues speeches. It is his pugnacity, his relish for confrontation, which voters do not want to hear this year.

Bradley's tactics have been set by one of the less noticed events of the cycle: the decision of left-leaning Sen. Paul Wellstone not to run. Bradley, adept in politics as in basketball, spotted running room and moved. Not all of his positions are to the left of Gore, but he has emphasized those that are, winning the endorsement of Friends of the Earth and courting labor unions. He has proposed a far-reaching new health insurance plan, favors allowing open gays in the military, and, in his search for racial reconciliation, appeared at a meeting convened by the racial demagogue Al Sharpton. Bradley, like Bush, seems to be starting off with common premises and trying to advance a consensus. His manner is helpful: Bradley seems candid while Gore seems canned. But Bradley's consensus may be too far left for voters.

In January, nobody expected Bush to be so far ahead now or for Gore to be so seriously threatened by Bradley, who is doing as well against the frontrunner now as Gary Hart was in 1984 against Walter Mondale, after the Iowa caucuses. Interestingly, other Republicans speaking in consensus mode–John McCain and Elizabeth Dole–have made progress toward second place. Meanwhile, Steve Forbes, who relied heavily on negative ads in 1996, is now mulling how to phrase anti-Bush ads without having them boomerang.

Curiously, Forbes got his best response from his personal and family campaigning for the Iowa straw poll–not what people expected from him, but who would have expected that the candidates of the party of the incumbent president in a pro-incumbent year would be running far behind a challenger?

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.


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

©1999, Michael Barone