Clinton takes a beating on Eli

A kinder, gentler George W. But is he the better New Democrat?

By Kerry Lauerman
Published April 24, 2000 1:09PM (EDT)

The forced reuniting of Elian Gonzalez with his father, Juan Miguel, is the subject of overwhelming attention, with a predictable, though perhaps surprisingly vicious, partisan backlash.

George W. Bush was first to criticize on Saturday, denouncing the raid on the Gonzalezes' Miami home as a "chilling" spectacle that left him "saddened and troubled." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott followed with his own condemnation, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay went on "Meet the Press" to promise congressional hearings on the matter, saying he was "sickened" and "outraged" by the raid.

The rebukes did not seem like pure political calculation -- or at least not smart calculation: A CNN poll showed that 57 percent of the public supported the raid. GOP pollster Fred Steeper, who works for Bush, told the Washington Post, "The Republicans risk coming off as politicizing the issue, and it could hurt among the majority of the people."

But that didn't stop a few Republicans from piling on at the risk of looking more than a little opportunistic. The always creative Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., somewhat inexplicably became the Miami relatives' weekend chaperone, trying and failing to broker a full family reunion at Andrews Air Force Base. And Rudy Giuliani, calling the raid a "horrible overreaction," acted as though the 6-year-old Cuban boy "had washed ashore on Governors Island," according to David Barstow of the New York Times.

Usual defenders jump ship

Among Democrats there were few who criticized the decision (vice presidential aspirant Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., was a notable exception), and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. (whom the New York Post suggests "is now angling to become the most important New Yorker -- and African American -- in Congress"), was perhaps the most prolific congressional defender over the weekend.

But Al Gore continues his low profile after his statement/non sequitur on Saturday, which reiterated that he wishes the case could have been handled by the family courts without actually commenting on the raid. And for the second day in a row, the New York Times blasts President Clinton's and Janet Reno's decision for "turning prematurely to the use of force."

The Times' William Safire, who supported reuniting the child with his dad, expresses gratitude to the Associated Press photographer for capturing a crying Elian facing a machine-gun-toting federal marshal, as well as "the nation's shame." But the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz finds the use of that photo, and the media coverage that featured the endlessly emotive Marisleysis Gonzalez and family, "a one-sided picture of the events, obscuring the fact that the family had left the government no choice but to seize Elian by refusing to surrender Elian during lengthy negotiations."

Is Bush the real New Democrat?

The Los Angeles Times' Ronald Brownstein argues that Bush, "on a series of major issues," has embraced the position of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, while Gore has either "kept his distance or actively opposed the DLC stance." Brownstein includes as examples Bush's proposals on Social Security, Medicare, education and health care, in which the Texas governor and the DLC agree tax credits are the best way to help the uninsured get coverage.

But it's for this very reason that Bush's health care proposal comes under fire from others, according to the New York Times. By addressing a topic usually owned by Democrats, Bush is following a strategy similar to "what President Clinton did in 1992, when he staked his claim to traditionally Republican issues like crime and 'ending welfare as we know it.'" But Bush's main solution for health insurance (a $2,000 family tax credit) won't do the job, critics say, with one academic estimating that his proposal would cover only "about 31 percent of the premiums for a typical uninsured family."

Cut him, and is his blood not blue?

Centrist policies aren't the only way Bush is trying to broaden his appeal. He's working hard to seem like "a regular down-home kinda guy," reports Frank Bruni in the New York Times. The George W. image is all about Texas, and has nothing to do with the East Coast elitism associated with his father. "Trendy television shows? Doesn't watch 'em. Fancy-schmancy vacations? Doesn't take 'em. Literary novels? Doesn't read 'em," Bruni writes.

He's also putting on a friendlier face to the media, reports the AP, goofing off more with reporters, keeping most conversations with them on the record, even calling them by nicknames such as "Pancho" and "Grandpa." (The report doesn't say, but the Times' Bruni is Pancho.)

Whom should you vote for?

Take our survey and find out. You might be surprised.

Poll positions

Presidential race:

  • Bush 44 to Gore 42 (Newsweek April 13-14).

  • Bush 45 to Gore 37 (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll April 5-6).

  • Bush 50 to Gore 41 (Gallup/CNN/USA Today April 7-9).

  • Bush 45 to Gore 40 (Marist College April 3-5).

  • Bush 46 to Gore 42 (Zogby April 1-4).

    Vice presidential preferences (previous):

    Preferences for Republican vice presidential candidate among all voters (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll March 22-23):

  • John McCain, 27 percent
  • Elizabeth Dole, 19 percent
  • Rudy Giuliani, 6 percent
  • Christine Todd Whitman, 6 percent
  • George Pataki, 3 percent
  • Tom Ridge, 3 percent
  • Fred Thompson, 3 percent
  • Connie Mack, 2 percent
  • Other, 3 percent
  • Not sure, 28 percent

    Preferences for Democratic vice presidential candidate among all voters (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll March 22-23):

  • Bill Bradley, 27 percent
  • Dianne Feinstein, 10 percent
  • Bob Kerrey, 6 percent
  • Bob Graham, 5 percent
  • John Kerry, 4 percent
  • Bill Richardson, 4 percent
  • Evan Bayh, 3 percent
  • Other, 6 percent
  • Not sure, 35 percent

    New York Senate:

  • Giuliani 45 to Clinton 44 (Zogby April 5-7).

  • Clinton 52 to Giuliani 42 (New York Times/CBS News April 1-5).

  • Clinton 46 to Giuliani 43 (Quinnipiac College March 28-April 3).

  • Giuliani 46 to Clinton 43 (Marist Institute March 27-28).

    Sound off

    E-mail Trail Mix with your comments, suggestions and tips at

  • Kerry Lauerman

    Kerry Lauerman is Salon's Editor in Chief. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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