The Magazine

IT'S THE DUKAKIS CAMPAIGN, STUPID

How Vice President Gore Will Run Against Governor Bush

Jun 14, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 37 • By TOD LINDBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Obviously, there is the possibility of an economic downturn or foreign calamity between now and the election. Either eventuality would strengthen any challenger to Gore. But in the absence of such trouble, we can surely expect Gore to note that when the Clinton-Gore team took over from another George Bush, the unemployment rate was 7.3 percent. Now it's 4.2 percent, and the U.S. economy has created some 25 million jobs in the Clinton-Gore years. Interest rates for home mortgages were over 8 percent; now they're under 7. The federal budget deficit was more than $ 250 billion; now there's a $ 100 billion surplus. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was under 3,300; now it's over 10,000. And the crime rate and welfare rolls have been halved. Gore will promise more of the same and sharply attack any and all "risky schemes" that might threaten the good times.


But if Gore bids to claim credit here, will he not also have to answer for the sins of his patron? Are people not, in one way or another, regardless of whether they are willing to say so, sick or at least tired of Bill Clinton? Will Americans not insist on a shower and a trip to the dry cleaners?


Well, Republicans certainly feel that way. But they should by now have become acquainted with the perils of extrapolating the views of the American people from their own feelings. In the first place, there is not much evidence that Americans take such a dim view of Bill Clinton's presidency. Admittedly, it would take a weirdo to admire him for his conduct with Monica Lewinsky. Republicans generally see in this scandalous behavior evidence of a fundamentally corrupt character.


But it is evident from polling data that Americans in general have a more complex (incoherent? nuanced?) view of Clinton. And while it is true that his job approval rating has slipped from the heights he once commanded, it is hardly clear that he is now on an irreversible downward slide. Ronald Reagan bounced back from the depths of the Iran-contra scandal in 1987, arriving on Election Day 1988 at a job approval rating of about 55 percent. George Bush then won the election with 54 percent of the vote. This does not seem coincidental; nor does a similar job approval rating for Clinton on Election Day 2000 seem beyond his reach.


But what of Gore? Is it not the case that what has failed to harm Clinton has nonetheless harmed Gore? His shakedown of Buddhist nuns, "no controlling legal authority," his invention of the Internet, his speech explicating our national motto, "out of one, many." What are we to make of the fact that he trails not only George W. Bush but also Elizabeth Dole? Surely this reflects a negative judgment of the sitting veep by voters.


Or does it? It is abundantly clear that Gore lacks Clinton's charisma and Clinton's way with a chin quiver. Polls likewise show no great outpouring of personal affection for the vice president. But neither do they show vast stores of antipathy. It is not as if any potential GOP candidate trounces Gore in the polls. The same Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll from mid-April showing George W. with a 26 point lead over Gore among registered voters shows Gore with a 16 point lead over Lamar Alexander and a 22 point lead over Pat Buchanan. An April CNN/USA Today poll shows Gore leading Sen. John McCain by 7 points, and an April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows him ahead of Dan Quayle by 23 points.


Disfavor toward Gore is relative, not absolute. Perhaps Americans have decided they know enough about Quayle and Buchanan to favor Gore. But it's worth asking how much Americans really know about George W. or Elizabeth Dole. Clearly, Americans have taken a liking to them. Clearly, they are politically viable and have genuine credentials, especially the Texas governor. But is their standing in the polls a result of Americans' understanding of who they are and what they stand for, or is it more attributable to the fact that they come from two of the best-known GOP brand names in American politics? If George Herbert Walker Bush is Coke, maybe George W. is a new Coca-Cola product. Sure, people want to take a sip. Diet Coke was a big hit. New Coke, however, was not.


By itself, all of the above ought to be more than sufficient to dispel the notion that George W. Bush can coast from here to the White House. He is barely at the beginning of an arduous and perilous journey, and the outcome is by no means foreordained. And oh yes, there's one more thing, something many Republicans don't like to think about because they find the notion distasteful: Al Gore is going to run a political campaign against George W. Bush.