Politics, like chess or basketball, becomes more sophisticated as the history of the game progresses. Players study each other's habits, learn from past mistakes, and anticipate moves and countermoves further in advance. Neither candidate in this year's presidential race will ignore attacks as Michael Dukakis did in 1988, write off an adulterous opponent as George Bush did in 1992, or ally himself with an unpopular Congress as Bob Dole did in 1996. Instead, victory will go to the player who figures out what his opponent can't do—win an all-pawn endgame, shoot the ball while moving left, discuss foreign policy intelligently—and steers him into it. That's what Al Gore has just done to George W. Bush.
Think back to the primaries. Gore was in danger of losing to Bill Bradley. What was Bradley's strength? Tuning out the opponent and inspiring the audience. Bradley's style was slow, abstract, and uplifting. He despised and refused to engage in petty conflict. So Gore engaged him. Gore's implicit message was: "Come on, Bill. Hit me." Bradley refused. Gore went on pummeling Bradley's platform, exposing real flaws and distorting fake ones. When Bradley realized the blows were doing serious damage, he tried to hit back. But he couldn't. It wasn't his style.
Likewise, after New Hampshire, Bush was in danger of losing to John McCain. What was McCain's strength? Character. He delivered straight talk. He had suffered for his country in Vietnam. He wasn't just another politician. So, Bush made him act like one. He targeted McCain's weakness: his temper. With a few hard jabs in South Carolina, he provoked McCain to declare on camera, "Bush's ad twists the truth like Clinton." Then Bush delivered the decisive counterpunch: "When John McCain compared me to Bill Clinton and said I was untrustworthy, that's over the line. Disagree with me, fine. But do not challenge my integrity." Suddenly, McCain looked like the politician and Bush looked like the wronged man of honor. McCain lost South Carolina badly and never recovered.
Now put yourself in Bush's shoes on Super Tuesday. You face Gore in the general election. You're ahead in the polls. Your opponent must find a way to take that lead from you. How will he do it? The same way he beat Bradley: attack. What will he go after? Your gubernatorial record, your tax cut, your plan to privatize part of Social Security. In elementary politics, the next question would be how to defend these targets. But in advanced politics, the question is more ambitious: How can you deprive your opponent of the attacking option altogether? By making it futile and counterproductive. How can you make it futile? By forcing your opponent, in the course of his attack, to call on an asset he lacks. And how can you make it counterproductive? By arranging your defense so that his failed attack exacerbates his chief weakness. You send a defender down court so you can rebound the opponent's miss and throw a long pass for a dunk. You arrange your bishops to shred the enemy's king side when he opens it by pushing pawns at you.
This is what the Bush campaign had in mind. The asset Gore lacks is credibility. He lost it by defending the Buddhist temple fund-raiser, claiming there was "no controlling legal authority," hyping his role in the Internet, praising Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and generally coming across as a shameless spin artist. Bad credibility, in turn, implies a weakness: bad character. So, Bush set up the media and the electorate to judge any attack by Gore as a question of credibility and character. Again and again, Bush predicted that Gore would attack him out of desperation and carnivorous instinct. And each time Gore breathed anything negative about Bush's ideas or his record, the Bush camp issued two replies: You can't believe anything Gore says, and this just shows what a ruthless hit man he is.
If Gore had used his convention to attack Bush personally, as Democrats did to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, or had launched a full-scale assault on Bush's gubernatorial record, as Bush's father did to Dukakis in 1988 and Clinton in 1992, Bush's counterpunch strategy might have worked. But Gore didn't do that. Instead, he defined the race in populist terms: "They're for the powerful. We're for the people." True or false, the charge was substantive. It was political, not personal. And to back it up, Gore cited a series of issues—health care, prescription drugs, tax cuts, family leave—on which the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress had tangled for six years. He promised, if elected, to pass a patients' bill of rights, crack down on polluters, and secure the solvency of Medicare.
How was Bush to respond? The answer consistent with Bush's long-range game plan—keeping the election focused on character, not policy—would have been to dismiss Gore's populism as yet another costume. "Whatever else Al Gore is, we all know he's never been a fighter against powerful interests," Bush could have chuckled. "He's been taking money from business folks his whole life. He's just trying to reinvent himself again." And the press would have bought this critique, because it's essentially true. But that isn't how Bush responded. Instead, he opened two new lines of attack. He called Gore's promises a list of what Clinton and Gore had failed to accomplish in seven years. And he blamed that failure on their cynical, divisive partisanship, freshly illustrated by Gore's "class warfare." The day after Gore's speech, Bush declared at a rally in Tennessee:
The voters have a clear choice. They got one candidate who wants four more years of finger-pointing and politicizing and blaming … who wants to wage class warfare to get ahead. I've got a different purpose. … A leader is somebody who finds common ground. Last night we heard a laundry list of new promises, which I thought was an attempt to cover up old failures. … [Gore] tried to separate himself from the squandered opportunities of his own administration. … Last night they were talking about making sure the Medicare system has prescription drugs. It's amazing they're still talking about it after seven years of power. It's time to get a president who's willing to work with Republicans and Democrats that will say there will be a prescription drug program for seniors who need it.
On the Sunday talk shows, Bush's two principal surrogates, strategist Karl Rove and communications director Karen Hughes, reinforced those two arguments. As Hughes put it on CNN's Late Edition:
What people saw on Thursday night in the vice president's speech was, one, a litany of the promises unfulfilled from the Clinton administration. For example, they talk about prescription drug benefits for senior citizens yet, for the last seven years, have failed to do anything to provide prescription drug benefits for senior citizens. … But I think what they also heard was a vice president who talked about fighting, fighting everybody, and I think the American people are tired of all the fighting in Washington.