Showoff argumentation or dime-store vision–which will win out? After more than $300 million in spending and millions of words of spin, the presidential campaign of 2000 is concluding as a fifteen-state face-off between a son-of-a-senator who ardently presents a multifaceted case for his election (I’m smarter, I’m more experienced, I gave you good times, my policy initiatives are better) and a son-of-a-President who relies on down-home bromides to show he’s the fella who can represent and safeguard the values of America (I trust people, not government; I’m a people person; a uniter, not a divider; we need a leader who leads). Issues are being hurled back and forth–Social Security, tax cuts, prescription drug benefits, budget plans, education programs, the Middle East, peacekeepers in the Balkans–but this give and take is occurring within a mano a mano context, which, if polls are to be believed, has benefited the aw-shucks George W. Bush over the tries-too-hard Al Gore.
In the final dash, the Gore and Bush camps, zeroing in on voters in the up-for-grabs states, have boiled down their messages to easy-to-repeat catch phrases. Gore aides say his case can be summed up in one word, “prosperity,” meaning, as Democratic Party general chairman Ed Rendell puts it, “No more BS–prosperity for all or back to what it used to be like. It’s a big choice.” That is, the Democrats have to do two things to win over undecided and swing voters: convince the holdouts that the election is truly a question of prosperity-or-downturn, and then persuade them that Gore is the man who can insure happy days. But the campaign has had trouble depicting the race in such life-or-death terms–perhaps because Gore has shifted his line of attack so often. His scattershot campaign veered toward populism at the convention, but that message faded; he then attempted to score points by whacking away at Bush proposals on Social Security, healthcare and tax cuts. Next he started a series of single-topic speeches on various subjects, like the Internet and privacy. “People agree with us on the issues,” insists Donna Brazile, Gore’s campaign manager, “and now it’s time for them to agree that Al Gore will inspire us to greater heights in the twenty-first century. It’s very important that they hear Al Gore.” Such a statement is an admission that Gore has not yet figured out how to connect with a sufficient number of voters or how to make this election an issue-centered contest.
Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, seems more confident than his Democratic counterparts when he describes Bush’s closing pitch: “The dominant theme is, trust people, not the government.” Beyond that, Rove explains, Bush’s claim is that “he can best change Washington and work across partisan lines.” Beneath these meta-messages, Bush has a five-point plan: Reform education, reform Social Security, reform Medicare, rebuild the military and cut taxes. Simple enough–and wily, in a Clintonian fashion, for Bush marries a classic Republican attack strategy (big government–bad) to a traditional Democratic tactic (express concern for Social Security, Medicare and education). Compassionate conservatism has brought him far. Bush’s intelligence became a campaign issue. But, with discipline, he has stuck to the tightly drawn script crafted by his advisers and taken advantage of Gore’s inability to define effectively the race, himself or his opponent.
As Bush recently barnstormed through swing states, he delivered a homily-laden stump speech aimed more at illuminating what he (supposedly) believes than at proving he’s a master of policy. At an airport rally in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he told a crowd of several hundred that Gore “believes in Washington, we believe in the people.” Down the road, at an office-equipment factory, he blasted Gore for wanting “to grow the size of the federal government” and for claiming that tax relief should be targeted to the “right people.” His voice rising, Bush declared, “Everybody is the right person in America.” Before a cheering gathering of several thousand at a civic center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Bush vowed to address the “gap between the affluent and the nonaffluent” without resorting to divisive “class warfare.” He observed that “the greatness of America exists because our country is great,” and he promised to unleash “armies of compassion” to assist less-fortunate Americans. (The Bushism of the day: “Families is where our nation takes–where our wings take dream.”)