AND THEN THERE WERE TWO...
Life on the Hustings without Bill Bradley and John McCain
Friday, March 10, 2000
RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON
Well, now we even know the actual names of the nominees of the two major parties who will square off in "the Battle of the Turn of the Millennium" this Fall: in case you only lately just climbed out from under a rock somewhere into the fullest sunshine, squinting your eyes as the strong light of day blinds you, I'll merely note in passing that they are, in fact, Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. It's kind of like watching the Major League Baseball Standings and knowing who the pennant winners are by the end of June (why bother going to the games the rest of the season unless it's just to be with friends or to kill time!... it's already the Playoffs that count!!)
Speaking of our one-time National Pastime, the late Gil Hodges once told a story from back in his days as first baseman for the old Brooklyn Dodgers about how, during a game with the old New York Giants in Manhattan's Polo Grounds, a fan with an unusually loud voice and seated behind the Giants' dugout implored the Giants' manager, Leo Durocher, to put a certain batter up at the plate whenever a pinch-hitting situation emerged in the course of the game; Durocher, of course, did not... until late in the game, when he finally used the player whose name the fan had been bellowing all afternoon. This fan's favorite pinch hitter promptly struck out on three successive pitches, to which the fan shouted- just as loud as he had been shouting the player's name before- "Well, Leo!... I guess we were BOTH wrong!!"
Hodges thought this a good example of how a sports fan should be, not always second-guessing the coaches and players but- at least every once in a while- taking the first guess (that is, being willing to suggest what strategy and tactics should be used BEFORE they are- or are not- implemented or being willing to go out on a limb a little bit as to what might happen next). "I'm not knocking second-guessers", Hodges once wrote, "I'm just saying taking the first one is more fun. You might be wrong a little more often, but you'll get a better idea of the satisfaction you can get from being right." It is in the spirit of that unknown leather-lunged New York baseball fan from half a century ago that I will now take that "first guess" and briefly address what seems to be shaping up in the General Election campaign which Bush and Gore will wage against each other this Fall:
First of all, let me assert my firm belief (with due apologies to F.D.R.) that, just as it was always Al Gore's nomination to lose, it is now also the Vice President's ELECTION to lose. I'm not saying Governor Bush can't be elected President; I AM saying that, should the Texan succeed in that endeavor, it will be much more because Mr. Gore will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory than by anything the Texan will be able to do in the course of the campaign. Al Gore right now has a significantly better shot at controlling the Center than Governor Bush and, as argued in the response of "The Green Papers" to the "Vox Populi" titled DRAFT JOHN B. ANDERSON (dated 8 February 2000), it is the Center- whatever said center is made of (after all, the center of a doughnut is the hole!)- which will hold the key to the Presidential Election... not the Left- nor the Right.
Oh, yes... I know... those of you reading this who strongly dislike (if not outright hate!) Bill Clinton and who will have no truck with Al Gore, Clinton's intended successor in the White House... those of you who are old-time "Reaganauts"... will not much agree with this: and most of you will point to 1984 as the election which justified the so-called "Reagan Revolution" as proof of your contention that the principles you valued then and still hold dear can well outweigh a blatant appeal to the "lowest common denominator". But I would strongly disagree: 1984 is actually a better case for my own contentions; that election was all about the Center, not the values and principles of the Right. It was no accident that a David Stockman (Reagan's first director of the Office of Management and Budget) or a James Watt (Reagan's somewhat controversial first Secretary of the Interior) were neutralized- if not completely removed- from the inner sanctum of the Reagan Administration before the onset of the 1984 Election Year!
Ronald Reagan- champion of late 20th Century Conservatism- had to meld his firm support on the Right with the Center in order to win re-election; he did so beyond all rightful hopes of success, bettering the electoral vote landslide that first elected him four years before by giving Walter Mondale an Electoral College drubbing that surpassed even that given to George McGovern (more a "Leftie" in terms of his support than anything Mondale had or was) by the soon-to-be-disgraced Richard Nixon. Reagan seized the Center from a Walter Mondale unexpectedly preoccupied with the surprise strong pre-Convention challenge of Gary Hart and never relinquished it; rather than trashing the Center politics theory of Presidential Elections, you old Reagan-supporters should, instead, be marveling at the political mastery of your one-time champion in terms of the electoral control of the Center in that 1984 election. By his own later admission, once Mondale had won the Democratic nomination he never had the slimmest chance of ever becoming President.
George W. Bush's chances to be President are nowhere near so dire as those of Walter Mondale's 16 years ago, but John McCain's unexpectedly strong insurgency of the five weeks ending on Super Tuesday [7 March] has given Bush many of the same problems Jimmy Carter's one-time Vice President faced back then. Just as Gary Hart forced Walter Mondale to protect his Left (painting Mondale as the second coming of McGovern and thereby benefiting President Reagan), John McCain forced Bush to protect his Right (there is no other plausible explanation for Bush's South Carolina visit to Bob Jones University and the short-lived controversy which came to surround it; likewise, there is no other plausible explanation for McCain's quite harsh critique of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell a few weeks thereafter). Bush now has to break out of the portrayal of him as less a "compassionate Conservative" than a "hard right Conservative"; in this sense, the loss of Steve Forbes to- combined with the general ineffectiveness of Alan Keyes in- the GOP pre-Convention campaign works to the advantage of Al Gore, as it made Bush look like the champion of the Right in a Right vs. Center contest with the Arizona Senator.
Gore, meanwhile, also has the advantages of the incumbency of his mentor- President Bill Clinton; for those of you who don't see said advantages, let me spell them out for you: Clinton has survived every sling and arrow thrown his way for now over eight years going back to the 1992 pre-Convention period- from Gennifer Flowers to Monica Lewinsky, from Not Inhaling to Impeachment; should he have survived? That's debatable- but the cold, hard fact is that he HAS survived. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh can tell his "true believers" the "way things oughta be"; I'm here to tell them how they actually ARE! What about scandals involving Al Gore himself? Well, the Bush people had better do a damn sight better than Buddhist Temple fundraisers or calls from the basement of the White House... these are abstractions for most voters: unless you have footage of, say, our Vice President wallowing buck naked in a pile of greenbacks while singing "We're in the Money", abstractions they will remain.
Further, if Governor Bush makes Clinton/Gore scandal/corruption the # 1 tune in his 2000 Campaign hit parade (it can be further down the Charts, of course... Bush probably will need to bring it up in some form or fashion in order to solidify his Republican base: a moral crusade is no good without the morality... or the crusaders!), it will be-at best- a loser's gambit. The Texas Governor has to talk convincingly about why HE should be President, not why someone else should not be; so far he hasn't really done that, though there is still more than enough time- of course (as I argued, in an earlier Commentary, he would after New Hampshire and before South Carolina... in fact, he did just that!)- for him to retool, but he'd better figure out early on just which tools he is going to put into his General Election toolbelt. Incumbent-bashing is a fine tool to use when things are generally perceived as bad, but it is that much less effective when things are perceived as- for the most part- going generally good.
And things ARE generally perceived as good, like it or not: the Economy, for example, is seen as a continuing strength for the incumbents. You ex-Reaganauts out there might not like Clinton (and, therefore, Gore- at least vicariously) taking the credit for the Good Times; you can even make an argument that it is really still the Reagan economy (something of a stretch) or the doing of a Republican Congress (much better!) but another cold, hard fact is that Presidents are like head coaches and baseball managers: they take the blame for things they may not deserve the blame for and, at the same time, gain credit for things with which they very often have little directly to do. Few are seeing in the hiccups in the stock exchanges the portents of general economic collapse and- even among my family, friends and acquaintances- I do not see the same panic upon unemployment I saw (in many cases, in the very same people!) nearly a decade ago. One thing might yet trip up the Vice President on the economic front- the continuing increase in petroleum prices to the consumer; however, unless we begin to see something like the lines at gas pumps I myself can well remember from both 1973-74 and 1979, this is not likely to become an issue which will quickly coalesce into a concrete indictment of Clinton and Gore firm enough to strongly aid the presidential ambitions of the Texas Governor.
On the Foreign Policy front, there are no serious diplomatic or military problems of the type that could seriously threaten the incumbent party's winning another term in the Oval Office. Kosovo, which could have become a prolonged struggle, didn't. Most of the foreign policy headaches which have been cropping up of late have been bureaucratic- almost regulatory- in nature: the collapse of a Northern Ireland coalition government here, the transition of power in a still struggling democracy/free market known as the Russian Federation over there. A lot can happen, of course, in the less than eight months before Tuesday 7 November 2000 and, as the saying goes, "a month can be a lifetime in Politics" (just ask John McCain about this past February!), but- on the "of historic proportions/toppling the present regime" scale, there is little on the radar right now which will positively help George W. Bush accede to the office once held by his own father.
What this all means is that the Texas Governor will have to help himself if he wants to defeat Al Gore this coming November and, even should he be able to help himself, it still might not be quite enough. Again, Vice President Gore is the one who most controls the outcome of this contest and, through it, his own destiny; but, if it is any consolation to Mr. Bush (as cold as such comfort may be), that is almost as tall an order for Mr. Gore as that the Texan himself faces as we now begin to pay more attention- even this early on- to the General Election campaign. What we have to do now is wait until this Summer when we can see for ourselves the tone, timbre and temperament of the "glorified telethons" which we call National Party Conventions; these gatherings next August will say much about how well Governor Bush has, indeed, helped himself and also how much Vice President Gore does, in fact, control his own destiny. Check with me again after Convention time!