The perception that George W. Bush's campaign is in some kind of trouble is the media focus of the week. It has been fueled by Al Gore's post-convention bounce in the polls, by Bush's stage whisper about a New York Times reporter, and by inflated gripings from some disgruntled souls at the RNC. Of the latter, the most pointed comment came from former Florida chairman Tom Slade: "There's not a single one of us that's not discouraged. We had a 15- to 20-point lead. We were just whistling down the street, and now we're whistling past the graveyard." Bill Kristol, ABC pundit and former Dan Quayle chief of staff, described Republicans as "[w]orried, verging on panic. It's been a big deterioration pretty fast."
Conservatives, of course, are prone to fatalism and expectations of defeat. At no time, moreover, has the tropism been more pronounced than in an era in which a man they look on as a criminal reprobate has beaten them from pillar to post in the polls. It is a good rule of thumb, on the other hand, to be wary of quotable sound bites under any circumstances. It's true of course that Republicans are nervous. Poll reversals in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania will ratchet up anxieties any time. But to jump from a few such wobbles to dire conclusions about the future of the race, or the state of the campaign, is to succumb to wishful thinking or to a misreading of the pre-convention polls, which showed Bush in the lead.
As someone who made that mistake on the eve of the Democratic Convention (and in a Salon column no less), I am willy-nilly the pundit on the spot to explain why this should not be a cause for concern. This happens to be even truer than would otherwise be the case, because I had a ringside seat at the Republican Convention, weeks before Gore's surge in the polls. As a result, I had reason to know that as far as the Bush team was concerned, the polls showing their candidate ahead were inflated and would shortly be brought back to earth.
As a member of the Bush Finance Committee, and as someone working with Tom DeLay and Roy Blunt to re-elect the House Republican majority, I was present at two separate meetings where chief Bush strategist Karl Rove walked us through the electoral map and laid out his vision of the months to come. At the time, Bush was leading in the polls by around 9 percent, and Rove predicted that he would leave Philadelphia with somewhere between 9 and 16 percent, which he did.
The Bush "bump" would be modest, Rove explained, because conventions historically consolidate the party base. But Bush already had his base (the polls showed him with 92 percent of the Republican vote). Rove said that Gore, on the other hand, would get a large bump, and would come out of the Los Angeles convention up 6 percent or even more. The reason was that the pre-convention polls showed Gore with only 77 percent of registered Democrats in tow. Rove concluded by saying that the race, Rove said, would start in earnest after Labor Day when he expected that it would be a "dead heat." And then it would go down to the wire.
So there is one certain thing, at least, in a contest where nothing else can be taken for granted. The Bush team was planning two months ago for the race we actually have now.
How does this contest shape up? It may not sit too well to say so, but much of the analysis I gave in August still stands. "By embracing the 'concern' issues of social security, education and healthcare," I wrote, "the Bush campaign[has] neutralized the Democrats' traditional advantage ..." Gore's problem, I said, was that he had to move left and center at the same time. To be fair, he has done that successfully so far. One week he is the defender of "working families," the next week the champion of "middle class families." And in all weeks he is promising as many things to as many constituencies as he can fit into one mouthful. As a result, by some estimates, the programs he has already promised add up to more than the surplus itself.
This is now going to be the crux of his problem. Democrats have been saying all along that Bush may have won the popularity contest, but when issues get put on the table, it will be their man who has the edge. Dick Morris, a strategist not thrown by the predictable shift in recent polls, last week outlined how the Bush campaign has plotted to meet this challenge -- by laying out the details of its own "issue" stands: "One by one, George W. Bush is stealing Al Gore's issues. Just like he should be doing. His larceny may not show in the polls each week, but the pattern will help assure him victory if he continues it, because it will take away Gore's capacity to campaign."
There is another factor that can work against Gore. And that is the ability of the Bush campaign to make the "issues" into emblems of Gore's character. The Bush campaign's issue ads are pointedly logged on a Web site at www.gorewillsayanything.com. Promising too much, for example, is characteristic of a man who will say anything to get elected. Here is the text of a Bush ad running in the battleground states that responds to Gore's attacks on Bush over the environment, one of Gore's strongest issues: "More negative attacks from Al Gore. The truth: George Bush is cleaning up Texas. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that Texas leads America in reducing toxic pollution. And Al Gore? Gore has allowed mining companies to mine zinc from his property. They've been cited for polluting the source of local drinking water all the while Gore's made half a million dollars from mining royalties. Even on the environment, Al Gore says one thing but does another."
And that's the environmental issue! On campaign finance reform -- the Bush team has a new attack ad that shows Al Gore's got an even bigger problem -- and it's the same one! "Al Gore is promising campaign finance reform. Can I believe him? Because of Gore's last fund-raising campaign, 22 people have been indicted, 12 convicted, 70 took the Fifth Amendment and 18 witnesses fled the country."
It's the character, stupid. This is not a matter of clever spin or personal attack. It's a matter of record -- of Al Gore's record as one of the most calculating and manipulative and hypocritical figures in American politics. Over the years he has strained to be too many things to too many people. Now the national spotlight is on him, and if the Bush team maintains a steady aim, there will be no place for Gore to run or hide.