The Magazine

The Clinton Referendum

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By FRED BARNES
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There's a message in the trajectory of the presidential campaign. At the beginning of the year, George W. Bush held a solid lead over Al Gore. Then came the Republican primaries, and Bush, battered by John McCain's challenge, lost ground. Polls showed Bush had fallen into a tie with Gore. Over the summer little happened, and Bush regained a clear advantage. The GOP convention bolstered that advantage, momentarily. But Gore then soared after picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate, delivering a palpably liberal though well-received convention speech, and giving Tipper a smooch. Gore pulled even or slightly ahead of Bush. Over the past three weeks, the debates have turned Gore's credibility and manner into issues. Bush has jumped ahead again and now leads by a few points.

Two dips, followed each time by the reappearance of a Bush lead -- that's the story. It means there is a natural state of this presidential race, a default position. Despite the fabulous economy, despite the unprecedented gains in the stock market, despite a wave of national contentment and the feeling by a majority of Americans that the country is headed in the right direction, the advantage in the race belongs to the challenger, the outsider, the agent of change -- Bush.

The message is that, absent a large intervening event, the country is wary of voting for the representative of the incumbent party. Sure, Bush has had to demonstrate he's an acceptable alternative to Gore. He's done that with his conduct, speeches, and debate performances, and the contrast with Gore is stark on all these counts. Gore's bullying and contemptuous manner has made matters worse for him. His lurch to the left, starting with his convention speech last August in Los Angeles, has positioned him as more liberal than the country (which remains slightly right of center ideologically) and more liberal than President Clinton as well.

But style and substance aren't the heart of Gore's problem. Bill Clinton is. In times of peace and prosperity, the electorate ordinarily looks for continuity in picking a new president. Clinton has upset that pattern. His scandalous behavior has created a desire for change. Of course, Gore isn't directly responsible for Clinton's personal conduct, and no one has accused him of that. But his connection to Clinton runs deep. Not only was Gore a full partner in illegal fund-raising, but he also served, through his praise of Clinton and attacks on his critics, as an enabler of the president's worst excesses.

For many conservatives, Bush's unwillingness to voice fervent and specific moral objections to Clinton has been a point of contention. In the four nationally televised debates, neither Bush nor Dick Cheney mentioned impeachment even once. (Nor did Gore, Lieberman, or their interrogators.) Bush's only regular allusion to the Clinton scandals is a fuzzy promise to restore honor and dignity to the presidency. His aides insist that going after Clinton or stressing Gore's ties to Clinton would backfire, alienating moderate and swing voters. They're probably right about this. Millions of voters, outraged and depressed by the Clinton scandals, don't want to hear about them anymore.

But voters haven't forgotten. "There are indelible images in peoples' minds," a Bush adviser says. People remember what Clinton did, Gore's trip to the Buddhist temple, his phone calls, and his comments about being "proud" to stand with the president and believing Clinton will be viewed by historians as "one of America's greatest presidents." All these things, the Bush aide says, "are lurking out there." Bush has no need to mention them. On the contrary, he must show he is not consumed by hatred of Clinton, a passion voters find off-putting.

Bush has managed this reasonably well. In the debates, he repeated ad nauseam that he's from outside Washington. He promises to bring a new tone and way of doing business to Washington. He says he would sweep aside partisan bickering and inaugurate a new era of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. A lot of this is naive campaign chatter that, at best, qualifies as wishful thinking. But it's wishful thinking shared by most Americans.

To overcome the Bush advantage, Gore desperately needs a big event or a dominant issue to emerge suddenly. More of the same isn't likely to alter the fundamental structure of the race. Yet more of the same appears to be Gore's strategy. He's relying especially on Social Security, the hardy perennial for Democrats late in a competitive campaign. It's worked in the past by scaring seniors that Republicans would take away their benefits, and it's conceivable it will work again. Probably not, though, since Bush has drummed up popular support for his Social Security reform, which would allow all wage earners to invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds.

The last resort for Gore is Clinton. The president is itching to get involved. On his own initiative, he ridiculed Bush last week while addressing congressional Democrats. And he'll be campaigning with Democrats in the closing weeks of the campaign -- though not with Gore under current plans. Clinton has already intruded in the race for his successor far more than most outgoing presidents, and he's done so in a particularly unpresidential way. An argument could be made that since Clinton is the source of Gore's trouble, his campaigning at the vice president's side would have a salutary effect, driving up turnout and serving as the hair of the dog that bit Gore. But this would clash with the central message of Gore's candidacy: that he's his "own man," not beholden to Clinton. Gore's sad fate is that he may not be electable with Clinton, or without him.

Conservatives have a right to congratulate themselves for Gore's predicament. If they had winked at Clinton's wrongdoing, as polls suggested they should, and settled for a bland censure of the president, the overriding Clinton factor would never have emerged. This would be a campaign about continuity, and Gore would win easily. "There are 13 people who are responsible for where we are now," a Bush adviser says. "They are the House impeachment managers." Reviled at the time by Democrats, pilloried by the media, scorned by Senate Republicans, they played a historic role, holding Clinton accountable, seeking just punishment, and, not least, shaping the 2000 race and paving the way for a likely Republican victory.

Fred Barnes, for the Editors