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How Vice President Gore Will Run Against Governor Bush

Jun 14, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 37 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Let's see if this reminds us of anything: A sitting two-term vice president is trailing in the polls in high double-digits behind a popular get-things-done governor from an important state, a governor who has tried to carve a political niche for himself apart from the dominant ideology of his party. Patton read Rommel's book on tank warfare before beating Rommel at El Alamein. It seems likely that for their coming fight again George W. Bush, Gore strategists will be taking a close look at how George Herbert Walker Bush reversed a 17-point deficit in the polls and crushed Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988.

The parallels between the two situations are really quite striking. Bush pere had an image problem as a "lap dog," stuck in the shadows, struggling to emerge. Gore is the cardboard cutout placed slightly behind Bill Clinton and to his left. Bush was haltingly inarticulate. Gore is wooden. How much did Bush know about Iran-contra? How much did Gore know about Chinese spying?

Michael Dukakis, the governor of liberal Massachusetts, home of the Kennedys, was a Democrat with a difference, one for whom the central political qualification was "competence," not ideology. George W. Bush of conservative Texas, home of Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, is a "compassionate conservative," some-one who can reach out beyond the party's narrow bounds. Michael Dukakis, a staunch death-penalty opponent, had a hard time dealing with a hypothetical debate question about the rape and murder of his wife. George W. Bush is pro-life; he just doesn't like to talk about it.

One could go on. And assuredly, there are important differences between the two situation. But the equivalent of Lee Atwater's successful effort on behalf of Vice President Bush to paint Dukakis as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal is not hard to imagine as the Gore campaign strategy.

It begins with an effort, already well under way, to get as many Republicans as possible to come forward to declare that there is something seriously wrong with certain other Republicans. Paul Begala has an interesting "character test" for the GOP, especially George W.: "Anyone who wants to be taken seriously by the mainstream must first show where he or she disagrees with the troglodyte bosses of the radical right. It's time someone took on the flat-earth Republicans, and the presidential primaries in 2000 are just the place to do it." Now, it's one thing when Begala rails against "troglodyte bosses" and "flat-earth Republicans." It's what you expect from him. Sure, he believes it, but it's also what he's supposed to say.

If Republicans do the railing, on the other hand, it's news; the charge acquires greater legitimacy. Michael Dukakis found it either imprudent or unseemly, probably both, to identify himself as a liberal; he preferred to change the subject and talk about "competence." The act of changing the subject lent credence from the Democratic side to a proposition espoused by the Republicans and highly useful to them: There is something about liberals that's wrong and out of whack with America.

The next move is jiu-jitsu. The Gore campaign portrays George W. Bush, compassionate conservative -- by implication, unlike certain other, less savory conservatives, from whom even Republicans distance themselves -- as a tool of those selfsame unsavory characters, as a crypto-right-winger who's trying to conceal it from voters because he knows that if they find out, he's finished. DeLay and Armey signed up awfully early, didn't they? Who's pulling the strings here? And what about that extreme GOP litmus test, a ban on abortion? Is Bush against that in principle? And what about that NRA-inspired and funded Texas law encouraging everybody to carry a concealed handgun? Didn't Bush sign that law?

In 1988, Lee Atwater insisted that George Bush attack Dukakis early, often, and savagely as an unreconstructed and unrepentant liberal. The campaign highlighted furloughs for convicted murderers and Dukakis's veto of legislation requiring teachers to lead school kids in the Pledge of Allegiance. As Dukakis pollster Tubby Harrison wrote in a June 9, 1988, memo, "If Bush is able convincingly to paint MSD as a liberal . . . he can reduce the distance between himself and the voters, thereby turning the tables on us." It will be the task of the Gore campaign to persuade voters that notwithstanding George W.'s carefully buffed image, he is in fact a captive of the extreme right wing of the Republican party.

There will be other elements to the Gore strategy, of course. One of these is already in play, courtesy of Democratic National Committee chairman Roy Romer. The Los Angeles Times reported on Memorial Day that Romer requested an interview with the paper. He used it to attack Bush. The paper quoted Romer: "He wouldn't be in this race if his name were not Bush. . . . The real question is having the name George W. Bush isn't going to get you there; it is do you have the leadership, the experience, the issues. . . . Somebody who has just been governor for five years, you have to ask the tough questions: Is this the kind of experience that qualifies you to run and occupy the presidency and lead?"

Now, the fact that Romer chose to lead with the issue of experience this early, rather than with "extremism," may be designed to distract the Bush campaign from the far more vicious attack that will be forthcoming. The Dukakis team thought that Vice President Bush would mainly run on his experience in high places, not on the destruction of Dukakis and his record. As Dukakis ad man Mal MacDougall told a Boston Globe reporter in October 1988, "I guess they were caught off guard. A lot of people in the Dukakis campaign thought the Republicans would run a more positive campaign and make Bush into a states-man."

Still, experience is, under the right circumstances, a serious issue. Moreover, Republicans have been saying for some time now that foreign policy might well reemerge as an issue in 2000 after a period of quiet. If it does, but remains prospective rather than recriminatory -- in the absence, that is, of a crisis that discredits Clinton-Gore, and in the wake of success rather than failure in Kosovo -- then we have a vice president with eight years' experience in foreign affairs, not counting the Senate, against yet another plucky governor.

It does not necessarily follow from these observations that George W. Bush would be a bad candidate in 2000 or is the wrong candidate for Republicans if they want to win in 2000. Clearly, Bush's strengths are estimable. But so are those of his most likely opponent. And Republicans have a tendency to be surprised by their opponents' attacks. They tend to think such attacks are unfair -- demagoguery of the sheerest sort. (They also tend to think that when they are required to speak ill of their opposition, they are bastions of probity and fairness, never resorting to such tactics themselves, but merely educating the public to the truth about important matters.)

Well, whether Al Gore's attacks on George W. Bush are fair or not, and whether George W. is ready or not, they are coming. That's politics. And whatever War Room-like documentary gets made about the 2000 campaign, it is not going to be called Smooth Sailing: George W. Bush's White House Journey.

Tod Lindberg is editor of Policy Review.