Has the Bush campaign been crippled by the Gore freight train? I think not, but Gore's temporary convention bounce should serve as a wake-up call and an antidote for overconfidence for the Bush camp.
Last week's events in Los Angeles were very odd, to say the least. Granted, people have short memories, but, regarding the Democrat convention, we're talking wholesale amnesia. Throughout the week leading up to the main event analysts were almost unanimous in declaring the convention a flop -- especially when compared with the nearly flawless Republican one a few weeks earlier. Then Gore gave his speech.
My reaction was that it was an insultingly populist rant. Surely not that many people are going to fall for this, I thought to myself. I noticed that most talking heads were initially unimpressed as well.
The first post-convention polls revealed no significant bump for Gore. Then, things started to change. New polls showed an astronomical bounce for Gore. One pre-convention poll had Bush ahead by 16 points. Afterwards, another one had him behind by 6, representing a 22-point swing. That's amazing, particularly for such a lackluster convention.
As the polls evolved, so did many pundits' opinions -- retroactively, no less. They wanted us to believe that they had adjudged Gore's speech effective all along. They said Gore needed to hit a home run, and he did. What an insult to Mark McGwire.
I've read some of the poll analyses, and they strike me as unintelligible. They say that Gore finally carved out his own niche by distancing himself from Clinton and emerging as his own man. I'm not buying it. That's way too sophisticated an analysis.
The commentators' initial reaction (the negative one) was that Gore made a mistake by appealing to the Old Guard, the extreme left wing of the party. They said that as much as he needed to break away from Clinton in certain areas, i.e., integrity, he should have emphasized centrist, New Democrat themes to reach swing voters.
Without question, Gore blew off the center and went straight for his liberal base, but when we focus on this New vs. Old Democrat distinction I believe we're missing the boat.
On closer inspection, Gore did not stray far from the Clinton reservation. Forget the New Democrat thing. Clinton's political magic has never been in the substance of his policy proposals, but in marketing himself and the issues. The issues themselves have always been secondary. The common denominator between Clinton's campaigns and the new Gore campaign is the class-warfare theme. Clinton-Gore called it trickle-down economics. Gore-Lieberman are calling it the powerful versus the people. It's the same old divisive tune, and it works.
Democrats were using this strategy way before Clinton, but Clinton and Gore have taken it to a new level. It used to be a device mainly geared to campaigns. Now it is also a credo for governance. That's the scariest thing about the Clinton-Gore legacy and the most compelling reason that Gore must be defeated. America simply cannot long survive as a republic -- at least not as a great one -- with this relentless pitting of people against people. It is a guaranteed formula to complete our transformation from a harmonious melting pot to a balkanized nanny state.
Because swing voters are politically impressionable, Bush is going to have to do some educating. He should continue to stress themes of freedom and self-reliance (with a touch of compassion -- "every willing heart") because he's never going to out-promise Santa Gore.
The campaign is going to get dirty, and the media will mainly blame Bush. Gore will continue to tell his tall tales and trumpet polarizing themes. The further behind he falls -- he'll revert to being behind when his "bounce" settles -- the nastier he will become. When Bush calls him on it (because the "watchdog" media won't) he will be characterized as the one who drew first blood. Bush is just going to have to deal with it. The alternative would be to let the misrepresentations go unchecked.
One thing the major poll shifts do show is that neither candidate's support is very deep at this point, so the election will probably go down to the wire. As long as Bush stays the course and doesn't allow himself to be unduly ruffled by Gore's tactics and the media's inevitably uncritical portrayal of them, he should win quite handily in November.