With the Republican convention just days away and the Democratic convention following in mid-August, no single issue or group of issues has yet defined this election. Sure, each candidate has his themes. George Bush has staked out education, social security reform and lower taxes. And Al Gore has been pushing gun control, low-cost prescription drugs for seniors, and a host of new programs for every Democratic interest group. But in the end, this election may turn more on personality than on any other factor.
Americans are largely content with their present lives, and most don't see politics as playing a particularly important role in their happiness, success or security. Unless something dramatic happens between now and Nov. 7, voters will go to the polls to vote for the candidate they like most -- or perhaps the one they least dislike -- which could spell big trouble for Al Gore.
I admit I'm not totally objective on this subject. I both support and like George W. Bush. But don't take my word for it. Al Gore himself seems a bit worried he'll lose a personality contest. "I understand that Gov. Bush is a popular and well-liked governor," Gore told a Texas audience last week. " I think he has a warm, engaging personality, " Gore said. "But, you know, the presidency is more than just a popularity contest." Well, yes, but don't underestimate the importance of "personality," either.
Gore has two problems in the personality competition. First, he has a mean streak that he doesn't even try to conceal. Secondly, he doesn't seem comfortable in his own skin, which has led to a succession of personal and political reinventions. Gore's modus operandi on the campaign trail so far has been an almost daily series of attacks. Last week's Texas tour by the Gore campaign was a perfect example. Gore went to San Antonio to blast Gov. Bush's record in a state whose voters re-elected him by 69 percent in 1998 and who support him for president over Gore by some 70-20 percent, according to polls.
Going negative sometimes succeeds, but the tactic is usually employed by a challenger against an incumbent or by a candidate who is so far behind he has nothing to lose. Neither description fits Gore. He's just gravitates toward the attack. He seems to relish it, in fact; which is evident when he debates. Gore can't resist going for his opponent's jugular, which might score debating points, but could cost him votes.
Remember Gore's famous attack on Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 New York Democratic presidential primary? Gore described a Massachusetts prison program that allowed convicted felons, including murderers, to go on unsupervised weekend furloughs. Two prisoners out on leave killed again, including Willie Horton, who also raped his victim while her husband was tied up beside her. Gore asked Dukakis whether he was planning on introducing a similar furlough program for federal prisons if he was elected. The point probably won Gore the debate, but he lost the New York primary, anyway. And Dukakis later lost the election, thanks in part to the GOP's effective use of commercials featuring Horton.
But Gore's nastiness may not be his biggest problem. After all, sometimes voters are willing to overlook a surly temperament -- otherwise, Richard Nixon would never have been elected president once, much less twice. Gore's bigger drawback is that he never seems sure of who he is or what he believes.
One day, Gore is the consummate Washington insider, the man at Bill Clinton's side, without whom the president could never have accomplished anything. The next day, he's keeping his distance from Bill and moving his campaign headquarters "home" to Nashville, Tenn., as if he hadn't spent virtually his whole life in Washington, from his childhood days as the son of a U.S. senator living in a Washington hotel suite to his most recent residence at the vice presidential mansion.
And it's not just his personal history that Gore reinvents. When Gore was in the House of Representatives, he voted pro-life 84 percent of the time. But lately, candidate Gore has become so gung-ho on abortion rights that he can't even answer a question about whether he would delay a scheduled execution if a death row inmate were, hypothetically, pregnant. Gore stumbled when asked the question on "Meet the Press" last week, but later clarified it by saying, "The principle of a woman's right to choose governs in that case."
Voters who reject that kind of split personality will be doing more than deciding a popularity contest.