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.”)
In Macomb County, Michigan–home of the legendary Reagan Democrats–Bush celebrated entrepreneurs and fired shots at government: “Our new economy was not created in a Senate subcommittee or a vice-presidential commission.” He continued to boost his shy-on-specifics plan to privatize a chunk of Social Security and said the $1 trillion in Social Security surplus he wants to place into private, personal accounts for younger voters over the next ten years will turn into $3 trillion by 2016. (That’s some return.) And he swiped Gore’s key word. “These are my priorities: to extend our prosperity, to spread our prosperity and to give our prosperity purpose.”
On the campaign trail, Gore and his Democratic comrades have resorted to a shrill tone. This was evident when Gore popped into Philadelphia for an “empower our base” rally at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, in the northwest section of the city. In Pennsylvania, a Democrat who can outpoll a Republican by 325,000 or so votes in Philadelphia–as Clinton did in 1992 and 1996–has a chance of winning the state. Thus it made sense for Gore to drop by to rev up one of the last functioning Democratic machines–though it would be more reassuring to Democrats if the base didn’t need a kick in the rear this late in the game. After the school’s gospel choir performed for a racially mixed crowd of 2,000 in the gym, Representative Bob Brady shouted that Gore “deserves to be President, he paid his dues…. The other guy just has a daddy who used to be someone.” A fired up–or panicked?–Representative Ron Klink, who is waging an uphill challenge against Senator Rick Santorum, denounced Bush for running a “me-too campaign,” and he decried Republicans for wanting to end school-lunch programs: “They’re pro-life, but once [children] are born, they’ll starve them to death.” Some Democrats have already adopted a resentment toward Bush akin to the attitude held by many Republicans toward Clinton: How can a guy like that end up as President? And, what’s worse, he stole our issues!
In his shirtsleeves, a pumped-up Gore, nearly yelling, asserted that the election is “not about me or Governor Bush, it’s about you…about prosperity.” Education, healthcare, Social Security, the environment–all of this, he proclaimed, is on the ballot. Gore was, again, making an argument. And he was promising to work hard, really hard, for Americans. As good as the economy has been, he said, as he always does, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” He did not refer to Ralph Nader, who may end up posing a threat to Gore in several crucial states, such as Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon. (Nineteen days prior to the election, Gore trailed Bush in a Minnesota poll 44-41 percent, with Nader at 8 percent.) To show how important the choice is, Gore ran through his policy goals: a balanced budget every year, a Patients’ Bill of Rights, a reduction in the national debt, preservation of Medicare and Social Security, middle-class tax cuts, cleaning up the environment, a ban on permanent striker replacements, stronger right-to-organize laws, a bolstered military, daycare, after-school programs, universal preschool, more pay for teachers, smaller class sizes, vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws, hate crimes legislation and campaign finance reform. A Gore campaign speech–which does gear up the faithful–is more of a to-do list than an inspiring call to arms for those beyond his core supporters.
It’s easy to rip apart Bush’s Reagan-reminiscent rhetoric. His own spending proposals–$523 billion to Gore’s $818 billion–would increase the size of the federal government. He urges a “change of tone” in Washington, yet he was escorted on this campaign swing by GOP chairman Jim Nicholson, a champion name-calling partisan. Bush assailed big government at a Michigan plant that’s prospering because of its work on the F-22 fighter plane and the V-22 Osprey aircraft, controversial projects kept alive by political guardians in Congress, and he gleefully accepted the endorsement of Lee Iacocca, the former head of Chrysler, which was saved by the largest government bailout of a private corporation. The new economy Bush acclaims was aided by the Internet, which started as a government-funded endeavor. His Social Security numbers defy explanation. His vision of an America unburdened by large government and political rancor, where tax cuts for the rich insure a strong economy for all, is slim and self-contradicting, but it passes the vision test for millions. Since Bush began his big-government bash, “things are moving our way,” claims Mark McKinnon, a Bush media consultant. “Whether it’s what we’re doing right or it’s what Gore is doing wrong, it’s been working for us. Sometimes it’s hard to say why.” The details of the Bush message may mean less than the impressions conveyed.
Still, Gore and his advisers keep believing in the power of details. In a more reactive mode than the Bush camp–that’s what bad poll numbers will do to a campaign–the Gore crew pounced on Bush’s trillion-dollar Social Security grab and quickly kicked out ads for broadcast in the toss-up states accusing Bush of threatening Social Security benefits. (The Gore campaign has the money to play even with the Bush squad in the final television-ad showdown.) “We’re going to keep moving on this,” says Bob Shrum, a top Gore consultant. One hears in the voice of the Gore advisers a hint of last-ditch hope: How can this not work; Bush has messed up and given us an opening; he’s swiping money from the near-elderly (who vote) to give to younger workers (who don’t vote); if this doesn’t pan out, we’re screwed.
The Bush people, though, don’t seem to be worrying much. On the campaign plane, Karen Hughes, Bush’s communications director, was cracking jokes that played off the view that Bush is a ninny. Referring to a top-ten list of reasons why Bush won the last debate, she said No. 2 was, “He’s finally learned the difference between East Timorians and West Texians.” No. 1: “Strategery.” In contrast, at the St. Louis debate Ed Rendell was test-driving excuses for a possible Gore defeat. The media, he said, were preoccupied with Gore’s misstatements, “let [Bush] off scot-free…and failed to focus on issue differences.” There was, he maintained, “no question” Gore won the first debate “on substance.” But the commentary on Gore’s “sighs and interruptions…cost us what should’ve been a knockout on debate one. What should have been a five-to-six-point bump turned into a one-to-two-point loss.”
As pols usually do at the end of campaigns, Gore and Bush partisans say turnout efforts will determine the outcome in the close-call states. The Republicans have more money to spend on a get-out-the-vote push–maybe as much as $50 million, compared with $15 million for the Democrats. Moreover, Wisconsin Republican Governor Tommy Thompson maintains that “in a tight race, the undecided usually break for the challenger.” Rendell argues that the door-knockers and phone-bankers the Republicans hire won’t be as effective as the activists deployed by labor unions. The AFL-CIO, which endorsed Gore, is running a $40 million member-to-member campaign, in which about 1,000 union people–many of them in the swing states–are arranging phone banks, leaflet-drops at work sites and visits to union households to make certain that union voters know the differences between the two candidates on union issues. (To abide by the loophole-ridden campaign finance law, the union cannot directly tell members to vote for Gore, but it can point them in the obvious direction.) Other unions are doing the same; the Service Employees International Union claims it will have 18,000 volunteers working at election time. With several industrial states in play, a strong union effort could save Gore. “We know that if we can get union members out in the same numbers as we did for Clinton, then Gore can win, say, Ohio, by 1 percent,” says a labor strategist.
But encouraging unionists to vote for Gore is not a problem-free task, for many of them bitterly recall Clinton/Gore support of NAFTA, GATT and the China trade bill. “When Gore was talking populism–‘I’m on your side and taking on the bad guys’–that helped us,” one union official notes. “But then that went away, while Bush stayed on message and was unflappable. Gore provides no context for all his programs. It’s a jumble of see-how-smart-I-am and see-how-much-I-know. Bush has mostly platitudes and little substance, but it resonates with people.”
More than ever, outside groups are toiling to nudge election results in the battleground states. The NAACP is spending $9 million to drive African-Americans to the polls. (It’s no secret whom this will help.) The Christian Coalition is at work. In Wisconsin, antiabortion outfits have dumped a load of Bush-backing literature throughout the state. (Bush does not mention abortion in his standard campaign remarks, and during the “W. Stands for Women” bus tour in Michigan, both Laura and Barbara Bush refused to answer questions about abortion.) NRA president Charlton Heston has been crusading in swing states and decrying Gore; at a Michigan stop he drew a crowd of 5,000 people, many of whom were wearing union jackets. Workers in union shops in the Midwest have received leaflets warning that “Gore wants to take away your gun.” The AFL-CIO has responded by passing out leaflets asserting that “Bush wants to take away your union.”
Mike Golec, a 35-year-old inspector at a Michigan firm that produces weapons-systems parts, says he’d be happy to reward Gore and the Democrats for the booming economy, but as a hunter he’s “pro-gun.” Golec, who voted for President Bush in 1992 and President Clinton in 1996, has heard “from the guys, maybe the NRA,” that Gore wants to impose a $50-a-gun tax. (Gore has no such plan.) “Gore is very impressive,” he notes. “He has more answers. But Bush is more honest. I may go with guns on this one. I don’t know.”
As the election closes, behind both Gore and Bush are tens of millions of dollars’ worth of last-minute political action and an assortment of forces. But to many undecided and already-decided voters–in swing states and elsewhere–the contest is one of individuals, not sides or agendas. When Bush concludes his typical campaign appearance, he solemnly talks of putting his hand on the Bible and swearing to uphold “the honor and dignity of the office.” When Gore finishes, he often is sweat-drenched, red-faced, shouting: “I want to fight for you! I want to fight for you!” Bush is pushing his sincerity (real or not), Gore is marketing his desire (real or not). For a decisive number of voters–despite the issues that hang in the balance–that may be the difference that matters most.