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

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

When talk is cheap

Like JFK in 1960, George Bush is winning on substance --
THE TWO CANDIDATES met in a decisive debate. The challenger, relatively inexperienced but from one of his party's famous families, showed a mastery of detail and a sense of command against the incumbent vice president of an administration that voters were mostly pleased with. It was said that the challenger won because of cosmetics or personality. But more fundamental factors underlay his victory.

The debate in question could be George W. Bush's triumph over Al Gore in Winston-Salem October 11. But it could also be John F. Kennedy's vanquishing of Richard Nixon in 1960. Nixon was ill at ease, trying to be something other than himself. Again and again he let the challenger frame the issues, conceding that he sought the same ends but differed only on the means. Kennedy's victory in November was narrow. But it reflected the fundamental strengths of his candidacy. One was the public's preference for a more active government and, therefore, the Democratic Party. The other was the feeling among Catholics that they were fully American and, so, entitled to equal consideration.

George W. Bush has not won the election yet. But a Bush victory now seems much more possible, and not just because he has a more agreeable personality or fewer irritating characteristics. There are two fundamental factors that could help Bush accomplish the supposedly unlikely feat of defeating the candidate of an incumbent party in a time of peace and prosperity. Those two factors put him in a position to excel in this debate and set Gore a much more difficult task.

Sighs and heaves. The first of these factors is that we are in an era when voters yearn for consensus and dislike confrontation. The results are plain in election after election. In 1996 voters re-elected Bill Clinton and the incumbent Congress. In 1998, for the first time in at least a half-century, incumbent House members of both parties saw their percentages rise. Bush is consensus minded, and he governed in Texas by forging broad coalitions of Republicans and Democrats. Gore is confrontation minded and legislatively was something of a lone wolf. Bush is running on a platform that contemplates bipartisan consensus on issues like education, Social Security, Medicare, and defense. Gore, having dithered until his convention between running as a "new Democrat" or an "old Democrat," chose the latter and proclaims, "I will fight for you." That contemplates bitter partisan encounters in a House that will be closely divided whichever party wins and a Senate in which neither party will be close to the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster.

Gore's overaggressiveness and sighs and heaves in the October 3 debate provoked such a negative reaction that he had to squelch his basic nature last week. He looked like a muzzled dog. He repeated only once his (wildly inaccurate) attack on Bush's tax program as giving too much relief to the top 1 percent of earners. He launched only one sustained attack on Bush's Texas record. Like Nixon in 1960, the incumbent vice president again and again conceded that he agreed with his challenger–and thus helped the challenger show the sense of mastery and command that voters want in a president.

The second fundamental factor that tilts the playing field toward Bush this year is the fact that voters today, unlike in 1960, do not want bigger government but want government to give them more choices: They prefer choice to command–by 58 to 32 percent, in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Gore was widely praised for his convention speech promising that he would stand up for "the people against the powerful." But that seems now to have been a good speech for a losing strategy. Gore solidified his base and established a temporary lead over Bush. But as Bush kept hammering at the theme that he would give voters more choice and Gore would give them more government, a theme he raised in both debates and has stressed in TV ads, voters have come to see Gore as the big-government candidate and have come to prefer the choices Bush would provide in education, Social Security, Medicare, and prescription drugs. Even Gore's attacks on the oil companies have not paid off; for all the hoopla over his release of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve, polls show Bush even with or ahead of Gore on oil issues. At one point near the end of the debate Gore protested wanly, "In fact, I'm for shrinking government." It was a recognition that the rest of his message is out of line with the underlying current of public opinion.

If Bush wins this election, it will be said that it was a triumph of personality, because he was the more likeable candidate. But, as in 1960, and even if it turns out to be just as close, a victory for the challenger has deeper roots. Gore's confrontation-mindedness and push for bigger government are in line with the majority of his congressional party. Bush's consensus-mindedness and push for government reform are typical of the Republican governors who have won high approval across the nation. Accidents can affect and sometimes determine elections. But do not ignore that there may be something more significant at work.

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.


10/03/00: The death of Big Media
09/09/00: A fair question
08/28/00: Making labor's day
07/11/00: The new Mexico: The 20-year history behind an overnight change
07/06/00: A textbook campaign: Bush makes hay before the convention lights shine
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