As the presidential campaign enters the homestretch, Al Gore has begun to achieve what no one previously suspected was possible: He has started to make the prevaricating rogue in the White House look good. If President Clinton is an artful dodger, Gore is a compulsive fibber. Even worse, while Clinton lies to help himself, Gore lies because he cannot help himself.
In another improbable achievement, Gore has even begun to remind people of Richard Nixon. Remember the question Nixon haters asked: Would you buy a used car from this man? It was the character, stupid. Gore's character has now become a factor that could decide the election, and probably not the way he and his supporters would prefer.
This election, in fact, resembles the 1960 race in other ways as well. It pits the charming but less-known challenger against the discomfiting, too well-known vice president. Nixon's problem was that the president-hero he served showed only lukewarm support for his heir. In a famous epiphany of the campaign, a reporter asked Dwight Eisenhower to supply an example showing why he thought Nixon would make a good president. His answer: If you give me a few moments I'm sure I can come up with one (or words to that effect).
Gore's problem is the obverse. Clinton supports Gore, but Gore can't take advantage of the support without having Clinton's negatives rub off on him. Clinton's approval rating as president is hovering around 60 percent. But his disapproval rating as a person is around 30. For Gore, it is a Hobson's choice.
Gore looked like he might have solved the problem by picking Joseph Lieberman as his running mate -- until that moment a man who had acquired a reputation for principle and moral character. But the association with Gore has transformed Lieberman into a pol who will jettison any principle to become vice president. In short, Lieberman managed to amplify the uneasiness voters already felt when contemplating a future administration headed by someone whose biggest campaign achievement was a kiss for his wife that briefly convinced voters he was a human being after all.
The present race has become like the 1960 race in another important respect. It is about America's leadership role in the world, and particularly its military policy. In 1960 these issues were injected into the race by John F. Kennedy's insistence that an unsteady foreign policy course had resulted in a loss of America's prestige in the world. An unwillingness to invest in defense technology had created a "missile gap" between our capabilities and our adversary's.
Similar issues have surfaced in the present campaign. This is, in part, a result of George W. Bush's choice of a running mate who was secretary of defense during the war in the Persian Gulf. They have also been thrust onto center stage by an oil shortage and a collapse of the peace process in the Middle East, both highlighting related failures of Clinton-Gore policy.
No one watching the Dick Cheney-Joe Lieberman debate could fail to be impressed by the authoritative tones in which the former secretary of defense expressed his concern over the decline of America's military capability as a result of the imprudent cuts of the Clinton-Gore regime. In fact, Cheney was far too mild in laying out the damage. The administration has systematically gutted the American military, which is now but a shadow of its former self.
Virtually every dollar of Gore's "reinventing government" cuts are cuts in the U.S. military. The current defense budget is $300 billion below the already downsized defense budget of 1993, which Clinton and Gore inherited. The Navy is half the size it was in 1993. America's bombers are older than the men who fly them. Overall, military spending is at its lowest level (as a percent of GNP) since before World War II.
As a result of the relentless cutting, year after year, by the Clinton-Gore White House, America's defense forces are now missing 709,000 regular (active duty) service personnel and 293,000 reserve troops. These include eight standing Army divisions, 20 Air Force and Navy air wings with 2,000 combat aircraft and 232 strategic bombers, 13 strategic ballistic missile submarines with 3,114 nuclear warheads, 500 ICBMs, four aircraft carriers, 121 surface combat ships and submarines, plus all the support bases, shipyards and logistical assets needed to sustain such a force.
These figures do not even include the equipment inoperable for lack of spare parts in a military drained of resources because of overdeployment and underfunding. For example, there is an entire "paper" wing (four squadrons of 18 planes each) of F-16s that is being carried as "administratively reassigned" to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. These planes are actually sitting on the side of a runway, in plain view. They have been cannibalized for spare parts.
On top of the equipment and personnel gaps, there has been a steep decline in the morale of enlisted men and women as a result of the reckless overdeployment of U.S. forces under the Clinton-Gore command. How reckless? From 1945 to 1991 -- years when the United States was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union -- U.S. armed forces were deployed exactly 10 times. In the eight years between 1992 and the present, U.S. forces have been deployed 33 times. These deployments were for "peacekeeping," humanitarian aid, nation building and other essentially nonmilitary purposes. Their cost has been underwritten by the regular military budget, depleting monies that were earmarked for maintenance, research and the development of new military technologies.
In sum, when Gore and Lieberman deny that the U.S. military has been dramatically degraded in the past eight years, they are liars. When they accuse the Bush-Cheney team of a lack of patriotism for pointing out these deficiencies, they are scoundrels.
America's enemies are well aware of the weakened state of our defenses. They do not have to be told that America could not put in place a helicopter force that Clinton actually requested during the Balkans war. They can read in the daily papers the postmortems on the war that reveal that "37,000 aerial sorties were required to destroy what General Wesley Clark claimed were 93 tanks, 53 armored fighting vehicles and 389 artillery pieces: that these comprised respectively, 8 percent, 7 percent and 4 percent of such targets, leaving the Yugoslav army virtually intact," according to Mark Helprin's "Mr. Clinton's Army," which appeared Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal.
Even to achieve this laughable result, Helprin writes, "the United States went without carriers in the Western Pacific during a crisis in Korea, and the Air Force tasked 40 percent of its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, and 95 percent of its regular and 65 percent of its airborne tanker force, in what the chief of staff called a heavier strain than either the Gulf War or the Vietnam War."
The chickens hatched by eight years of dereliction in the area of national security are now coming home to roost. As a direct result of the failures of the Clinton-Gore foreign policy, and the weakening of America's credibility as a world power, the allied coalition that won the Gulf War is dead, and Saddam Hussein is back in business. The oil cartel that dominated Jimmy Carter's years in office has the West by the throat again, while the United States is more dependent on foreign sources of oil -- and thus more economically vulnerable -- than it has ever been. A summary episode: Last month Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela (which supplies 22 percent of U.S. oil) and a political fan of Fidel Castro's, made stops in Cuba and Libya on his way to Iraq to call for raising oil prices to as much as $50 a barrel. All this without a peep of protest from the State Department.
While bankrupt energy and foreign policies made Americans hostages to the OPEC mafia, the Clinton-Gore administration became officially tongue-tied in the face of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel for defending itself against a Palestinian assault on its sovereignty over Jerusalem. The assault came after years of demonstrable Palestinian contempt for the Oslo Accords and in the face of massive Israeli concessions by the most dovish government in Israeli history. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak actually offered to surrender 90 percent of the West Bank and to share power in Jerusalem -- previously unthinkable to Israeli governments. But Yasser Arafat thumbed his nose at the offer.
Now, after seven years of the failed "peace process," the intifada is back, and the Middle East is threatening to explode. For seven years, the Palestinians have refused to accept the most basic conditions of the Oslo Accords: renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel. For seven years, the administration has done nothing to hold Arafat and the Palestinians accountable. Meanwhile, under the accords, the Palestinians have become an armed "police" force inside the Israeli state. This combination of a Palestinian arms buildup and an Israeli appeasement interpreted as weakness has now erupted in violence and a breakdown of the peace process itself.
The collapse of the Clinton-Gore foreign policy in the Middle East, and the related failures of the administration's energy policy, have served to restore national security questions to a primary place in the presidential contest. For the last two decades of the Cold War, anxiety over national security was the surest guarantee that the American people would turn to Republicans to provide a commander in chief (the one exception being the one-term presidency of a military veteran from the South).
With the successful conclusion of the Cold War conflict, Americans felt safe enough to trust the nation's defense to Democrats not once but twice, the first time that had happened since the beginning of the Vietnam War. The question Americans will decide in the next three weeks is whether they feel safe enough with a risky fellow like Al Gore to try this once again.