A Bush Too Far
The trouble with these lines of attack is that they carry Bush into enemy terrain. They shift the debate away from character toward policy. Worse yet, they shift it from the future to the past. Bush gained the upper hand in the election by doing two things: 1) concentrating the public's attention on Clinton's scandals rather than Clinton's excellent economic record or his popular positions on issues; and 2) focusing the policy discussion on the popular things Bush promises to do in the future rather than on the unpopular things congressional Republicans have done in the past. By portraying Gore as a warrior and associating his warfare with the major policy battles of the past six years, Bush undercut his whole game plan on the most important weekend of the campaign.
The talk shows illustrate this blunder. On Meet the Press, Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley was shown the video clip of Bush blaming Washington gridlock on Gore's "class warfare." Daley replied, "Al Gore has worked in the Senate, in the House, and as vice president with Republicans when they would work with us. Newt Gingrich and his group wasn't too quick to want to work with the administration." Minutes later, Rove charged that Gore's "class warfare" had obstructed progress on prescription drugs, a patients' bill of rights, and shoring up Medicare and Social Security. Again, Daley carried the argument to the GOP's doorstep: "Newt Gingrich and the Republican leadership in the House and Senate over the last eight years haven't been exactly willing to work with President Clinton or Vice President Gore, and that's one of the reasons why we've had a stalemate on important issues as Karl has talked about."
On This Week, Hughes said of Gore's speech: "People across America heard a long list of the failures of his own administration. For seven years, they failed to provide prescription drug coverage. For seven years, they failed to get a patients' bill of rights. … He wants to talk about fighting. They're fighting in Washington." To which Gore adviser Bob Shrum gladly rejoined:
It's interesting to hear Karen talk about the failure to enact some of these things. Almost every Democrat in the House and the Senate is for these. Very few Republicans are. George Bush could move this process right now. If he's really for a prescription drug benefit for all seniors under Medicare, which by the way is not in his budget, he ought to pick up the phone and call Trent Lott. … The reason he doesn't pick up the phone and call Trent Lott is because he doesn't want to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs, and the insurance companies.
This is a debate Bush can't win. Politically, the Clinton position has beaten the Gingrich position every time. Bush's whole campaign was designed to stay out of this quagmire. So how did he stumble into it? One possibility is that he and his advisers blundered. They thought "class warfare" was another character issue. It isn't. It's about class. And the Bush people themselves have unwisely identified it with all the health-care and retirement-security debates on which Democrats keep whipping Republicans. The Bush folks should have accused Gore of a political misdemeanor: lying about being a populist. Instead, they tried to nail him for a political felony: thwarting progress on important issues in Washington, through populist partisanship. They wanted to raise the stakes, and they did—to their own ruin.
Another possibility is that Bush's plunge into the Gingrich-era policy morass was inevitable, because in the long run, content beats tone. Gore has been the candidate of content: policies, positions, and a record of battles in and against Congress. Bush has been the candidate of tone: decency, integrity, honor, purpose, optimism, compassion, leadership. Over the long term, content is more essential, because while content can convey tone, tone is always about content. Leadership is on Social Security. Compassion is toward single mothers. Fighting is for a patient's bill of rights. On this theory, there was no way Bush could have made it all the way to Election Day without having to discuss exactly what policies should be—and should have been—fought for and about. And sooner or later, as the Republican nominee, Bush would have been obliged to go around the country saying to congressional Republicans what he now says at every campaign stop: "Help is on the way."
The third possibility is that Gore forced Bush's hand. His selection of Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Clinton's speech to the Democratic convention on Monday, and Gore's speech three nights later shattered Bush's front-running game plan. Post-convention polls showed that in the space of two weeks Gore had sharply diminished his association with Clinton's misconduct, reassured the public of his ability to lead, shored up his support on the left, and persuaded swing voters that he shared their values and would advance their interests in areas where they had previously preferred Bush. Above all, Gore had achieved this while persuading many voters of his trustworthiness and polarizing the election along the lines of the Washington policy wars rather than of incumbency, competence, or Bush's Texas record. He hadn't even mentioned Bush's name. So when Bush struck back—which suddenly became essential—he had to do so in Washington policy terms. Whether by force or temptation, Gore provoked Bush to attempt the one maneuver he couldn't afford. Bush will be lucky to survive it.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.