For Bush, the greatest challenge will be to maintain direction and control and avoid perils that appear suddenly and force crucial errors on the campaign trail. But without an issues-based premise and plugging a tarnished Honor and Dignity theme, avoiding errors alone may not be enough for the Bush campaign.
Gore Takes Lead In Battleground States
by Dana Chasin
We speculated two weeks ago in this space about whether Vice President Gore’s 5-10 point lead in the polls on Labor Day was post-convention glow or potential harbinger. The lead is holding and, for now, the latter looks the likelier. With no overriding issue fueling the campaign or dividing the candidates, a set of intangible, currently marginal, but potentially decisive factors could make the difference. Before the debates start and the campaign moves into prime time, there is time to consider factors that might lurch into prominence and prove momentous.
The Gore/Lieberman ticket is displaying and conveying a surprising energy and enthusiasm, confounding widespread popular perceptions of Al Gore of just two months ago. Gore’s position on the issues most important to people are supported by clear majorities. He and Senator Lieberman are articulating them without the constant distraction of the high-pitched feedback of reporters asking about rats and, uh, big time body parts [more about these later].
Meanwhile, the pressure is mounting on Governor Bush to do something to reverse the trend of the past month. On top of this, Bush faces a disproportionate number of the risks posed by some of the “intangibles” that could become determining factors in the campaign.
The Polls: Pressure and Prophesy
The first of these makes fertile ground for the others: the GOP must be seeing some very bad polling trends in states they must win. The party wanted to win the White House this year desperately, so it will not be a surprise if they lose it desperately. Desperation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is it too early to discuss desperation? The first early sign of it came from the Bush camp last Friday when the campaign announced that it was agreeing to the schedule of debates proposed by Commission on Presidential Debates and agreed to by Al Gore months ago.
The Bush campaign played cat and mouse for a month, accepting 42 other debate venues, none of them prime-time multi-network venues. For its efforts, it may yet get its way on the town hall or Oprah-style format in perhaps one of the debates. But to take a month to counter-propose, reject, and attack, only to surrender unconditionally, that’s no way to look Presidential, son. Such total capitulation is either embarrassing or an example of taking the lowering-of-expectations game too far.
The polls may provide an explanation and a hint of things to come from Bush. With under 50 days to go until Election Day, Gore is well-positioned, having jumped out to double-digit leads or very close, in three of the four largest Midwestern swing states, according to polls last week by EPIC/MRA of Lansing, Mich.:
The Bush campaign bought more television time in Florida this week than in any other state (over $1 million to Gore’s $330,000). Florida? Another sign of early desperation? The fiefdom of Governor Jeb Bush, with its 25 electoral votes, which had been assumed safe for Bush until the selection of Lieberman, edges closer to the margin of error.
The trend in the polls over the last month and, more importantly, the way they have knocked Bush off his balance and altered his campaign strategy, suggest that the candidate’s relative inexperience (6 years in office, against Gore’s 26 years) and overreaction to the polls could result in unforced errors as time runs down.
The Issues: Nowhere to Run?
Governor Bush has announced that he wants to return the campaign’s focus to the issues. No wonder. He must be tiring of the constant nonsense about rats-and-asshills. But Bush never expected or wanted to run against Vice President Gore mainly on the basis of issues, certainly not in the face of the biggest economic boom anyone can remember and (with our biggest nuclear adversary a more present danger to itself than to us) war a nonexistent concern.
The central premise of Bush’s candidacy had to be that Clinton fatigue would somehow transfer to Gore, and that Gore would be rejected in favor of GOP rectitude, reflecting Americans’ deep desire for a Fresh Start and the restoration of Honor and Dignity to the White House. This is where the Bush team’s “rats-and-asshills” slips hurt worst: they wholly undermine the Honor and Dignity theme of the Bush campaign. Dick Cheney’s multi-million dollar severance package from Halliburton is another blemish on the premise.
There is the one substantive policy premise, hanging like an albatross around Governor Bush’s head: that huge, swollen, and badly misshapen $1.3 trillion tax cut he has been hawking for many months. It has no more traction than Bob Dole’s 15 percent tax cut promise in 1996. Up until now, Bush’s tax position was fine, not resonating with the general public but at least keeping the GOP faithful at bay.
Not any more. The GOP leadership abandoned its longstanding insistence on tax cuts in its budget negotiations with President Clinton last week. And GOP candidates for the House and Senate (to wit, Rick Lazio in New York) have begun to flee from tax cut proposals of Bushian magnitude. His tax cut proposal proving ineffective at best, where can Bush turn for aid among the issues? Lying in wait wherever Bush turns on the issues front is the Texas record, which is likely to get closer scrutiny and where numerous perils abound. (Bush seems to sense this. See Illuminating the Issues, below).
Thunder on the Right
For much of the last several months, Gore looked more likely to lose more votes to Ralph Nader than Bush did from Pat Buchanan. Nader still polls twice as much support as Buchanan. But the balance is likely to shift, and at Bush’s expense. Last week, the Federal Election Commission approved the award of the $12.5 million in general election funds earned by the Reform Party following Ross Perot’s eight percent showing in the 1996 election to Reform nominee Buchanan.
Though much less than the over $60 million in election funds that both Gore and Bush have received, the way Buchanan spends the $12.5 million and the nature of his campaign carries far more risk for Bush than for Gore. For a sneak preview of the potential ramifications, consider where Buchanan, returning to the front after several weeks following gallbladder surgery, plans to re-launch his campaign on Monday: Bob Jones University.
These are among the trickier factors and issues to keep an eye on as the campaign picks up speed. For Bush, the greatest challenge will be to maintain direction and control and avoid perils that appear suddenly and force crucial errors on the campaign trail. But without an issues-based premise and plugging a tarnished Honor and Dignity theme, avoiding errors alone may not be enough for the Bush campaign.
ILLUMINATING THE ISSUES:
BUSH ON HEALTH COVERAGE FOR CHILDREN IN TEXAS
ROWLAND EVANS (of Evans & Novak): Governor, I want you to take a look at this ad by the Democratic National Committee. "Texas ranks 49th out of 50 in providing health coverage to children." Now, Joe Lieberman, the vice presidential candidate of the Democratic Party has been in and out of your state just knocking the stuffing out of you on this kind of statistic. What do you say to Joe Lieberman? What do you say to the people of Texas on that kind of a ranking?
BUSH: Well, listen, first of all, the people of Texas know full well that we've got an aggressive program to sign up uninsured children to health care -- we're going to sign up over 400,000 children -- that we spend over $4 billion a year for the uninsured, that we're aggressively helping people who need help. Let me just say -- and they've attacked the education record, which, by the way, is one of the best in the country. They've attacked every single aspect of Texas society. But the proof is in the results. I'm the first governor ever elected to back-to-back four year terms. I did so with a huge majority. And a lot of Democrats support me. There's a lot of Democrats in Texas who are supporting me in the presidential race because they know that not only have we had a good record as governor, but I've brought people, both Republicans and Democrats, together. I look forward to debating -- the debate on the uninsured with Vice President Gore. There's 44 -- well, let me finish for a second -- there's 44 million folks uninsured in America, eight million more since these folks came into office. No, let's talk about the record of uninsured relative to the -- what we've done in the state of Texas.
EVANS: All right, Governor, I get your point.
DANA CHASIN is President of the Empire State Democratic Initiative, a statewide membership organization providing opportunities to younger citizens of New York State to participate in the political process.