Theme Wars 2000

Theme Wars 2000

It was yet another Washington confab where Democrats gathered in a hotel to ponder their prospects.


It was yet another Washington confab where Democrats gathered in a hotel to ponder their prospects. Well-dressed lobbyists milled about–Blue Cross/Blue Shield chatted with IBM, AT&T with MCI WorldCom–and the nation’s prominent political journalists kibitzed, waiting for the key moment of the day. In between the usual yada-yada-yada from the podium that December morning, Vice President Al Gore was due to deliver a high-concept speech in which he would unveil the philosophical essence of his presidential campaign.

Gore began with boilerplate, citing his Administration’s accomplishments (a “revitalized economy,” welfare reform and “tough new punishment” for crime). Then–thud!–the Big Thought landed: “The great insight of our time is the fact of our mutuality, our connection to one another. The old ways that didn’t work saw only separate, competing entities…. In this ‘us versus them’ thinking of the recent past, a vision of the common good struggles mightily–often futilely–to transcend the whole. But transcend we must…. Today, I challenge America to raise that banner with a new ‘practical idealism’ for the twenty-first century.”

“Practical idealism”–that was why Gore must be the next President. He went on to call for saving Social Security, preserving abortion rights, bolstering public education, improving urban planning and resisting restraints on free trade. The man who once idealistically declared, “We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization,” said little about the environment. And his explanation of “practical idealism” was thin: “An approach that recognizes the limits imposed by fiscal discipline, but reaches for limitless new possibilities in our economy, in our schools, in our environment. An approach that applies the values of the past to the amazing opportunities of the future.”

After the speech, aides fanned out among the reporters to spin. I asked one to define “practical idealism” without using either word. “Connections and wholeness are fundamentally Gore,” she said. “You put yourself in a different position, if you are looking differently, if you are looking at something as a whole.” She continued: “How do we make sure the future is affecting us in a positive way? We are rolling into the twenty-first century. We have to be practical”–whoops–“about how we move forward. It is a future-oriented approach.”

But where’s the “it”? What’s the “it”? What happened to Gore’s plain-English initiative?

The Gore aide supplied an example of whatever it was she was talking about. Imagine if religious leaders, after-school officials and police representatives met “at the same table” to figure out how to prevent crime. “What Gore does is create the table…. He does this with other issues, too. He gets everyone at the table and focuses on what works. If you’re going to make it in the twenty-first century, you have to get to the table.” No superhighway. No bridge to the next century. The operative metaphor is a piece of furniture. As for the details, she added, Gore “has two years to do that.”

After she trotted off, I turned to the fellow next to me and inquired, “Did you understand that?” He shook his head and replied, “I was going to ask you.”

Welcome to Theme Wars 2000. The already-galloping presidential campaign is dominated more than ever by money and management. The consensus among politicos is that a candidate will have to bag at least $20 million by the end of 1999 to ante up as a serious player. With the primary process front-loaded–mainly because of California’s decision to move its all-important primary to early March–contenders will require loads of early money and extensive organization. Though the frantic cash scramble may be the decisive factor that shapes the contest, there’s another element candidates cannot ignore: message. In the retail marketplace of politics, it is not a sufficient rallying cry to claim, “I can raise the bucks and I have the right connections to local party hacks.” A candidate needs a message that is noble-sounding. It must contain a strategic component–an appeal to an identifiable bloc of voters–for packaging is positioning. A slogan that fits on a bumper sticker or book cover helps. As candidates and near-candidates are dialing for dollars and hitting up local party officials for support, they are also test-marketing themes.

Light-years ahead in money and contacts, Gore may have a lock on the Democratic nomination. But he still has to campaign–for appearance’ sake. Thus, he needs a flag to wave while slogging toward coronation. His choice of an overarching theme is not without importance. It’s one way in which he can step out on his own. “Being heir apparent is not enough,” says a Democratic strategist. “There has to be a ‘Gore perspective.’ It can build on the Clinton presidency, but it has to include a new Gore take on things.” Yet since Gore unveiled “practical idealism,” it has not rocketed up the charts. In fact, in recent weeks, while Gore, in Clinton-like fashion, has unveiled one initiative after another–a “livability agenda,” expanded empowerment zones, payments to hog farmers, more funds for civil rights enforcement–he has not deployed the phrase. According to a Washington Post article, Gore’s key Wall Street supporters have advised him to pitch a more concrete notion: to boast that on his watch, a rip-roaring economy has enriched both Wall Street biggies and small investors. Their message: Forget idealism; it’s money that matters. No doubt, theme-skirmishes will continue within Gore’s camp. “Practical idealism” may be dispatched to the same file where Gore placed his environment-first passion.

The second half of Gore’s mystifying, nearly oxymoronic, phrase was perhaps designed with Bill Bradley in mind. The former Democratic senator from New Jersey and past basketball great has been positioning himself as Mr. Semi-Outsider, with values galore. That does contrast him with Gore, a bred-in-Washington longtimer splashed by the Clinton scandals. When Bradley announced in 1995 that he was leaving the Senate, he griped that “politics is broken.” He blasted both parties–Republicans for their blind devotion to the market, and Democrats for their overreliance on bureaucratic government–and called for “thorough-going reform that will remove special interests from elections and reduce their influence on government.” There was talk he was considering an antipolitics independent challenge to Clinton. But the insider-turned-insurgent never materialized. Running as a Democrat, Bradley has yet to boil down his message to a zippy catch phrase. Ask his press office why he should be chosen to supplant the sitting Vice President of his party, and they point to the “personal message” on his Web site. The short statement is apple-pie rhetoric. Bradley maintains he is seeking the presidency to “improve the opportunity for more Americans to live healthier, more economically secure, more personally fulfilling lives.” He notes that 2.8 million children live in “deep poverty” and that quality healthcare is not available for all. But he presents neither proposals nor a framework for addressing these worries. Instead, he calls for affirming “the basic goodness of the American people.” As for what distinguishes him as a candidate, he says, “I believe in a type of leadership that doesn’t stand in the spotlight as much as call attention to millions of Americans who shine every day.” He concludes, “Together we can be that good.”

It’s a riff off the Army motto, “Be all that you can be.” There’s no mention of broken politics or reform. He goes light on values. That’s reserved for his fast-selling book, Values of the Game, a meditation on basketball and the success that arises from discipline, courage, respect and selflessness. “The society we live in glorifies individualism,” Bradley writes. “Basketball teaches a different lesson: that untrammeled individualism destroys the chance for achieving victory.” His bottom line: teamwork coupled with leadership that is modest but chock-full of character.

“Bradley has to run against the culture of Washington,” says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. “He has to present himself as not part of the polarization and hope the mood in 2000 turns from the current partisanship to one of antipartisanship.” Greenberg believes that transition is unlikely, that the bitter environment created by the impeachment drive will benefit Gore. “People ought to be tiring of the Bill Clinton presidency,” Greenberg adds, “but with Democrats showing unity in the face of a partisan onslaught, it will be hard for any Democratic candidate to be discordant.” Moreover, Bradley, who has a long reach into pockets on Wall Street and in the entertainment industry, will find it hard to rail against the system while collecting $20 million the old-fashioned way. (He has, though, eschewed money from political action committees and has not exploited campaign finance loopholes that other candidates have manipulated with gusto.) If Greenberg’s reading of the Democratic constituency is correct–that it will be in a defend-Clinton mood–Bradley’s teamwork-and-values message may not resonate, since his intent is to shove aside Clinton’s good soldier.

The Democratic contest could end up no more than a narrow two-man face-off between a status-quo Washington veteran and an inside-outside roamer whose politics are not essentially different from those of his competitor. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, who has punched at Clintonomics, has been shying away from the race. Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, could marginally expand the race. A consistent advocate of campaign reform with strong foreign policy credentials–in the eighties he chased after the contra drug connection, Manuel Noriega, the shady BCCI bank–Kerry has not offered a fully cooked rationale for his candidacy. His most noticeable political move of the past year came with speeches in which he swiped at the teachers’ unions–Democratic Party stalwarts–for standing in the way of education reform. Kerry, who could finance a campaign with his wife’s fortune, appears to be constructing this message: “I may be a Democrat from liberal-land, but I’m tougher and more independent than Gore.”

The more challenging theme-in-waiting belongs to Jesse Jackson. If he leaps into the race, Jackson can be expected to revive his cry for a wider sharing of America’s wealth. But can he mount a populist, confrontational campaign, as he did in 1984 and 1988? During the past year, Jackson’s most visible public project has been his defense of Clinton. In an ad in the Washington Post, he hailed the record of the President he considered opposing in 1996. His Clinton boosterism may have placed him in good graces among many Democrats, but can Jackson pull a switcheroo and campaign against Clinton’s designated successor? If Clinton has done such a swell job, why not stay with his program?

Jackson’s campaign line would not be a surprise. He would probably poke at the economic triumphalism of Clinton and Gore. The economy is booming? Not for all, he has argued, noting that the forces of global capitalism must be checked by people power. In December Jackson said his decision to run would depend on whether any candidate had “anything to say that is relevant to the people of eastern Kentucky and central West Virginia and Appalachian Ohio, where good people, working hard, have tried to break the cycle of poverty.” He would press Gore on Social Security and trade, but, given Jackson’s embrace of Clinton, the question hovers, How far can he push without appearing overly opportunistic? It will be a delicate dance to shift from Clinton confessor/champion to foe of Gore–especially if Democratic voters traumatized by impeachment look to rally behind FOB No. 1.

The battle of the message is more freewheeling within Republican ranks, with a larger field. There may be a front-runner or two, but no one with a Terminator-like claim on the nomination. Texas Governor George W. Bush and former Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole, both undeclared, are the handicappers’ faves, but neither has ever campaigned nationally as a candidate. In the GOP theme contest, Bush is ahead, with his compact slogan “compassionate conservatism.” It’s not clear if the phrase–which can be read as a demeaning retort to rough and acerbic Gingrichian conservatism–has any significance beyond style. That is, does it convey anything other than that George W., a big fan of welfare reform, has a warm smile and is comfortable with Americans of Hispanic ancestry? During his recent inaugural, Bush deployed a bilingual slogan, “Juntos Podemos/Together We Can.” It was part of his ongoing effort to set himself apart from rabid right-wingers. In his speech he said that “diversity gives Texas new life, new energy, new blood, and we should not fear it.” On another occasion, he declared, “I’m a tolerant person.” (In 1993, though, he did say heaven was only open to followers of Jesus Christ–a position he has since reversed, at least in public.)

Bush’s toleration-hugging steps have caused some political observers to label him a moderate Republican. But for several years, he has been meeting with the policy gurus of the right–Richard John Neuhaus, Marvin Olasky, Linda Chavez, David Horowitz–and, according to National Review, the consensus is that Bush is solidly conservative. Yet as a front-runner with snap-of-the-fingers fundraising ability, he is under little pressure to detail the contents of his friendly brand of conservatism. “Republicans feel comfortable with someone who is entitled,” says one Republican strategist. “But this is the first time since 1968 no one comes in entitled. George W. is creating the image of inevitability, which is a substitute for entitlement. But it’s a little nuts. We don’t know where he’s going with his compassionate conservatism.”

Elizabeth Dole, like Bush, has coasted to co-leader ranking without lifting the phone. She has said nothing to indicate what direction a Dole campaign might take. Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly has razzed Dole on the air for having muttered not a peep on the Clinton scandal. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked her about abortion rights, she refused to state a position, remarking, “At this point, I really don’t want to get into political issues.” Her tabula is the most rasa of the GOPers. “She hasn’t said anything,” notes a Republican Party official. “My sense is you won’t hear much from her for a while. She can afford to let the other candidates scramble. Her message, for now, is herself. And that’s not so bad.”

The rest of the GOP pack divides into two camps: those explicitly courting the religious right and those who are not but who wouldn’t spurn its affection. Last year, it appeared that Missouri Senator John Ashcroft had social conservatives lined up. Then he pulled out of the race. Others quickly swooped in–and confronted a tough task: If you’re a Republican angling to lead the far right, how do you distinguish yourself?

Steve Forbes has the power of conversion on his side. In 1996 Forbes, the flat-tax über alles candidate, was squishy on abortion. The Christian Coalition, he huffed then, “does not speak for most Christians.” Understandably, the religious right mobilized against him. This time out, he has fused his antitax crusade to rock-solid social conservatism. He says that stopping abortions is more important than driving a stake through the tax code. At a Christian Coalition convention in September, the multimillionaire told the faithful, “You have stood your ground, you have fought the good fight.” He has chided the GOP for focusing “too little” on Monicagate; he funded radio ads urging impeachment. His blatant flip-flop is working. In November the never-elected-to-anything Forbes topped a straw poll of conservative leaders. By campaigning as a full-throttle social conservative and an antigovernment/antitax conservative, he is hoping to place a trademark on the phrase: I am Reagan. But if that doesn’t cut it, he still stands out in another way: He can write his own check for $25 million.

In Spartacus-like fashion, Gary Bauer, too, shouts out: I’m a Reagan Republican. Bauer, who has relinquished his position as head of the Family Research Council to run, is reprising the role Pat Robertson played in 1988, when he cemented his position as the high priest of the religious right. Bauer, like Robertson, will be able to call upon a base of activists. And his political action committee has raised $7 million. He has broken with the corporatist wing of the GOP by criticizing plans to privatize Social Security and by opposing most-favored-nation trade status for China. But on the stump he has concentrated on bashing Clinton, assailing “the abortion culture” and decrying gay rights. He recently trekked to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to urge defeat of an ordinance that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. For Republicans obsessed with the so-called radical homosexual agenda, he could be the man. A January straw poll of slight but some significance, taken at the Conservative Political Action Conference, found Bauer the favorite: He drew 28 percent to George W.’s 24 percent, Forbes’s 10 percent and Dole’s 8 percent.

With Bauer around, commentator Patrick Buchanan, should he enter, would not be the only shock-the-conscience candidate of the right. Buchanan and Bauer differ little in tone and position on social issues. Of the two, Bauer “is the candidate with money and organization,” says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican consultant who has done work for Bauer in the past. “He could be the Pat Buchanan of 2000–even if Buchanan is in the race.” Buchanan, though, has more experience pitching economic nationalism. Of late, he has bemoaned the pressure that foreign steel companies have placed on US firms. “Buchanan has the credibility on economic nationalism,” a Republican Party strategist says. “He can make inroads into ethnic Democrats in crossover states that Bauer can’t touch.” Buchanan remains the natural leader for anti-NAFTA/antiabortion/anti-UN conservatives.

Also chasing the far right is former Vice President Dan Quayle. He, too, has been banging the impeachment drum, and social cons remember him fondly for taking on the fictitious Murphy Brown. He has moved to outflank other conservatives by proposing a 30 percent across-the-board tax cut–trebling the initiative put forward by House Republicans. And he’s declared war on the son of the man who gave him his last job. In a letter sent to financial supporters, Quayle wrote, “I have ordered my staff to never–EVER–utter the words ‘compassionate conservative’! This silly and insulting term was created by liberal Republicans and is nothing more than a code for surrendering our values and principles.” But Quayle–the only candidate currently scoping the religious right who has ever held elected office–is making a case for himself primarily on foreign policy grounds. At an address at the Heritage Foundation, he proclaimed, “No presidential candidate should be taken seriously unless he or she understands the importance of foreign policy.” The assumption is that he does. After all, what can he offer that Forbes, Buchanan, Bauer, Dole and Bush cannot? So he’s playing up the threats of international terrorism and ballistic-missile proliferation. Outraged at Hollywood and nervous about terrorists and missile attacks from Saddam? Quayle is for you.

Arizona Senator John McCain, former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander and Representative John Kasich are all struggling to find a path to the nomination that does not pass straight through the Christian Coalition. Last year McCain pushed the antitobacco bill and campaign finance reform legislation. Both irritated Republicans and both got clobbered. “How do you run by pissing off Republicans on tobacco and campaign money?” asks one Republican pollster. What McCain, a former prisoner of war who has become a national voice on foreign policy, can serve up is Honor (even if he was ensnared in the Keating Five S&L scandal). In a recent speech, he attacked pork-barrel spending by both parties and assailed special interests in Washington. McCain has an advantage in that he can be summed up neatly: the hero-maverick. But who in the Republican Party is yearning for a clean-money rebel?

In 1996 Lamar Alexander had an icon and a theme: the red plaid shirt. His fashion statement was supposed to signal that he was from beyond the Beltway. But his anti-Washington shtick did not ignite a wildfire of support at country clubs across the land. That was no surprise; the guy’s a millionaire who served in President Bush’s Cabinet. For this campaign, Alexander has retired the shirt, moving on to a new device: We The Parents. That’s the name of an organization he created that laments the difficulty of being a parent these days. Its solution: Triple the federal tax deduction for each child. In mid-January, he moved to claim another piece of strategic turf. Asked what issues the GOP should highlight, Alexander remarked, “We can be the party of the great American outdoors.” And how could it do so? Hand responsibility for the national parks to state and local governments, he said. “There’s a big Republican opportunity here.” Give back the parks? Whether or not Alexander has hit on a winning issue, he is one of the best fundraisers in the race; his prowess will keep him afloat. But still, his kids-and-parks message will have to survive the glare from candidates with greater star power.

John Kasich of Ohio will also have trouble elbowing his way to notice. He says he wants “to begin to run America from the bottom up rather than the top down and to promote, again, the sense that we need common values in our country, and, thirdly…to renew the American spirit.” It’s Gingrich-lite, offered by a fresh-faced, upbeat 46-year-old. Kasich, whose tax-cut fever is tailored for GOP yuppies and entrepreneurs, has been peddling his own ready-for-the-campaign moral vision. He released a book–modeled on Profiles in Courage–that celebrates volunteers who “do God’s work on earth.” He is presenting himself as religious without sticking out his neck on the divisive issues of abortion and homosexuality.

With all these aspirants, it will be hard to track the GOP message war. Does Kasich make inroads with economic libertarians who drooled over Forbes in 1996 but now fret about his lurch to the social right? Will Bush and Dole battle over style more than substance? Can McCain and Alexander locate audiences? Will Buchanan and Bauer fight to the death over who’s more antigay and antiabortion? Will anyone take Quayle’s foreign policy fear-mongering seriously? Or pay attention to New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith, a declared candidate who does not even have the support of his own state party? Others may enter and further balkanize the race: Jack Kemp, Pete Wilson, George Pataki, Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes.

Already, the frustration among some candidates is bubbling up. Asked about Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” Alexander groused, “I don’t like those words. I think those are weasel words. I think they mean nothing. They’re just like Al Gore’s words, ‘practical idealism.’… Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush [are] using weasel words to build their whole political identity, and I think our attitude ought to be…no more weasel words.” If only. But, sorry, Mr. No-More-Plaid, the weasels are off and running, and you’re in there with them.

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