The presidential election is sixteen months away, but candidates are already fanning out across the land, garnering dollars and media exposure. Congressional Republicans and Democrats are tailoring legislation to position themselves for next year’s campaign. Stephen Gillers argues that now is the time for progressives to start thinking about what they should be doing. We will publish some other views in our next issue. –The Editors
My Y2K nightmare is that Republicans will win the White House and keep control of Congress. The payoff for this trifecta, which Republicans have not won since 1952, will be broad lawmaking (and law-repealing) power and a good chance to name three Supreme Court Justices in the next presidential term. Will that be Bill Clinton’s legacy to the rest of us as he moves on to the next chapter of his life? I detect an air of inevitability about it, like a bad movie plot or the gradual revelation of biblical justice. Yes, I know, a lot can happen in the next sixteen months, but that gives me no consolation. Saying a lot can happen is a form of denial. A lot can happen the other way, too. Things may get worse. What we know best is what is true today, and today the future looks bad.
Al Gore and George W. Bush are the probable major-party nominees. Gore exudes competence and decency but lacks magnetism. And however unfair it may be, he is a reminder of the pain Clinton caused the nation. Voters also blame Kenneth Starr, but that doesn’t mean they forgive Clinton. Meanwhile, Bush shares Clinton’s and Ronald Reagan’s knack for enchanting an audience. More soft money will back Bush than Gore. As for hard money (money that counts against federal fundraising limits), in the first six months of 1999, Bush collected a record-breaking $36 million, more than all other Republican contenders combined. And while we may yet hear of escapades in Bush’s past, they are likely to look merely naughty next to Clinton’s bad conduct in office.
Yes, issues also count, but Bush and Gore are both aiming at the middle. If voters believe the two are close enough and neither seems personally threatening, they will choose the candidate they “feel” is a better leader. A CNN poll puts Bush 11 percentage points ahead of Gore with women voters, notwithstanding Bush’s antiabortion position and the 16-point lead among women that Clinton enjoyed over Bob Dole. Issues are complex, but impressions are simple. Unfortunately, Gore comes across as the angelic relative whom parents cite to spur their kids (“Why can’t you be more like Cousin Albert?”), while Bush is the easygoing guy next door you can have over for a beer and good stories. These may be unfair stereotypes from popular culture, but isn’t that how we package and decode candidates? Political semiotics worked for Clinton twice. The nation chose the charming, if incorrigible, pal over the detached and distant patriarch (President Bush) and the stern and censorious uncle (Bob Dole). Republicans now embrace Bush precisely because he’s the candidate from central casting.