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The Clinton Factor: Gore's albatross, Bush's advantage

National | Bill Clinton won't go away, and every time George W. Bush talks about restoring "honor and dignity" to the White House, he reminds voters why. As the fall campaign takes shape, it's clear Al Gore has just one strategy: to make a vote for the Texas governor seem "risky." So far it isn't working, but Bush shouldn't start measuring for White House drapes just yet

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

In 1988, the most important person in the presidential race was the departing president, Ronald Reagan. The same is true in 2000-with one important difference. Mr. Reagan shaped the political environment in a way that helped his vice president, George Bush, get elected. President Clinton hovers over the election this year in a way that's helping the opponent of his vice president, Al Gore. So the campaign consists of George W. Bush's effort to take advantage of the Clinton factor and Mr. Gore's desperate stab at overcoming it. This may sound too simplistic. But it's clear the issues that normally dominate a presidential contest are peripheral now. The economy has been so robust for so long that no one believes Mr. Gore is responsible for it or that Mr. Bush will improve it. On foreign policy, the only serious issue is missile defense and both candidates are for it, Mr. Gore for a small system, Mr. Bush a far larger one. What's left are the moral, social, and character issues, precisely the ones that Mr. Clinton, by his personal behavior, has made salient. The significance of these issues is reinforced by a phenomenon that's been dubbed the "Clinton bifurcation" by Jeffrey Bell, the strategist for Gary Bauer's presidential campaign. It's something we're all familiar with. In polls, the president's job performance is still highly rated, usually 60 percent or better. But his personal approval rating is consistently below 30 percent. In other words, people like the economic conditions under Mr. Clinton, but they dislike him. For 2000, this means voters want a new president who's not militantly anti-Clinton on policy, but who personally-and especially morally-is the opposite of Mr. Clinton. Mr. Bush qualifies (so did John McCain). To the detriment of Mr. Gore, Mr. Clinton refuses to fade into the background. Despite scandals, he admits only to a single mistake, without saying what it was, but otherwise argues he was "defending the Constitution." He shows little remorse for chronic philandering or lying to the American people and under oath in federal court. Rather than accede, he's fighting disbarment in Arkansas. When Bill Daley took over as Mr. Gore's campaign manager, he asked allies and even a few Republicans how to keep Mr. Clinton from overshadowing Mr. Gore. He hasn't found a way. The day after Mr. Gore addressed the NAACP, Mr. Clinton did. When Mr. Gore finally got Bill Bradley's endorsement, Mr. Clinton was hosting a Mideast summit at Camp David. The president is skipping his summer vacation to raise money for Mr. Gore, though the veep has plenty. And Mr. Clinton plans several attention-getting foreign trips this fall. Playing the character card
Mr. Bush has played the Clinton card brilliantly. His biggest applause line, one he's been using for at least two years, is about restoring honor and dignity to the White House. In numerous interviews, he's told how: Spurred in part by Billy Graham, he gave up drinking at age 40, accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, and turned his life around. While ducking questions about youthful drug use, Mr. Bush has insisted he's been faithful to his wife Laura. On abortion, he hasn't flinched from his pro-life position. Mr. Bush has been respectful of homosexuals individually, but has rejected the gay-rights agenda. Just as important, he hasn't accepted the alternative morality that Mr. Clinton and his supporters have concocted to trump the president's personal sins. This transforms gun control, campaign-finance reform, race, and tobacco into moral concerns. If one takes the liberal position on these issues, then one is acting morally. If one doesn't ... well, you get the drift. That Mr. Bush hasn't bought into this has been demonstrated by his refusal to repudiate the National Rifle Association and his appearance before the NAACP in which he cooled their opposition without endorsing their agenda. With moral, social, and character issues paramount, something totally unexpected by politicians and strategists has occurred. The supposedly dead majority that backed Ronald Reagan and gave Republicans a huge victory in 1994 has re-emerged. Mr. Reagan created a conservative majority by stressing the economy and hawkishness in the Cold War. The GOP brought the Reagan coalition back to life six years ago by attacking Mr. Clinton's policies. Now, it's come together again. Mr. Clinton broke up the coalition in his presidential races in 1992 and 1996 by cleverly taking conservative positions. Mr. Gore hasn't been able to do the same, so far anyway. Instead, Mr. Bush is now favored by men and married voters (particularly those with children) and evangelicals by wide margins. He's winning among Catholics (who went with Mr. Clinton twice). He's made headway with Hispanics. He's locked up the South and the Plains and Rocky Mountain states, just as Mr. Reagan did. Mr. Bush is even doing well in the "library belt," the good government states of Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Bush's final four
But the race isn't over yet. In three of the last five presidential contests, the leader in mid-summer lost in the fall. It could happen again. Mr. Bush must successfully run a gauntlet of four events to win the White House. In sequence, the four are (1) the selection of a vice presidential running mate, (2) the convention speech on August 3, (3) the Gore negative barrage in September and October, and (4) the debates. During this time, Mr. Bush's job is to show he's capable of being president and not outside the acceptable mainstream politically-exactly what Mr. Reagan had to show in 1980. Picking a veep is the easiest of the four. It is Mr. Bush's first major decision as a candidate and he'll be judged accordingly. Mr. Bush says privately he wants someone who'll instantly be seen by the public and the press as a heavyweight ready to step in as president. He also told an adviser recently that he'll do nothing to cause an explosion at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. This comment was in answer to a question about whether he might pick a pro-choice running mate. The adviser interpreted his answer as, "I won't." The convention speech will be the first time most Americans have heard Mr. Bush speak for any duration. He's not a first-rate orator like Mr. Reagan, but he can be effective. This is where Mr. Bush's idea of compassionate conservatism will come in handy. It gives him a framework for a message that's both caring and conservative and thus broadly appealing. His chief speechwriter, Mike Gerson, is the master of addresses that do this. Mr. Gerson needs to come up with a memorable phrase or two, as Peggy Noonan did for Mr. Bush's father in 1988. The biggest hurdle for Mr. Bush won't be debates. He's improved dramatically as a debater in the primaries. Still, Mr. Gore will be tougher than Mr. McCain, Alan Keyes, and company. Mr. Gore likes to goad his opponents into anger or irritation. He's a needler. Mr. Bush must keep calm. Mr. Gore also will try to make Mr. Bush appear too inexperienced and lacking in knowledge to be president. On this, Mr. Bush needs to resist trying to be a detail man, while talking up programs like Social Security reform in general terms. The only debate Mr. Reagan ever lost-to Walter Mondale in 1984-was when he emphasized details over vision. Mr. Bush also needs quick retorts when Mr. Gore pictures him as an extremist. If Mr. Gore says Mr. Bush would outlaw abortion, Mr. Bush's best tactic is to respond by describing the type of abortion (partial-birth) that Mr. Gore would allow. The toughest test is the Gore ad assault. Mr. Gore has hired the most ruthless Democratic consultants in the business. They're willing to do anything, including playing the race card. They've saved candidates from the jaws of defeat before. In 1998, they painted Republican Ellen Sauerbray as a racist and got Democrat Parris Glendenning re-elected governor of Maryland. The charge was utterly false, but Ms. Sauerbray was slow to respond. Mr. Bush better not be when Mr. Gore insinuates he's bad for blacks because he opposed instructing South Carolina to take the Confederate flag off its Capitol. All the Democrats' hardy perennials will be used against Mr. Bush: He's a fellow traveler of a "do-nothing Congress," the reincarnation of Newt Gingrich, a tool of the Far Right, a backer of big business over the little guy. Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief strategist, says the Bush camp is braced for the assault and prepared to counterattack. We'll see. After President Clinton, the country wants change. People crave moral leadership. Compromised by the alliance with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore can't provide either. He's become a reactionary liberal, opposing serious reform of Social Security, Medicare, the military, education, and the federal bureaucracy. Mr. Gore will argue Mr. Bush is too big a risk to take. If George W. Bush comes across as a safe choice, as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, he'll win. Bill Clinton has paved the way.

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