The time seemed ripe to turn the tables: Hang the dread "C-word" on the Republican Party and watch the voters flinch in horror! Rubbing their hands with glee, Al and Hillary rushed to smear Bush and Lazio as too conservative.
So when Bush picked Cheney, Democrat heads with pretty hairdos tsked-tsked over Cheney's right-wing record. Why here was a man so far to the right, he wanted to keep Nelson Mandela in jail, imagine that! He voted against gun control! Soccer moms ought to have fled the GOP in droves.
But dragging up Dick Cheney's conservative votes in the '80s not only failed to upset voters, it boomeranged big time: Among registered voters in an ABC News-Washington Post poll, Bush's lead over Gore grew from 5 points to 12 points the week after he tapped Cheney. Among likely voters, Bush's lead was even larger.
Cheney's pick dominated the news coverage of the Bush campaign. So either voters like the idea of a quiet, conservative defense leader next in line to the Oval Office, or the more of Bush they see on their TV screens, the more they like it. Either way it's bad news for Gore.
And Hillary's effort to smear Rick Lazio as a right-wing kook appears to have similarly failed to catch fire, with the cheery young congressman now leading the first lady by more that 7 percentage points in the latest Zogby poll.
Like Newt before them, Hill 'n' Al have so far seriously misdiagnosed the American mood: True, voters don't like the idea of right-wing revolutionaries tearing down their government, but it is the revolution part, not the right-wing part they don't care for.
True, the two parties may have become more competitive at the national level than they have been since the '60s, but that doesn't mean the voters have retreated to the good old pre-Reagan days for the Democrats, when the word "conservative" could still scare little old ladies, causing them to clutch their Social Security checks tightly in their bosom while reflexively pulling the donkey lever.
By proposing to allow workers to put part of their Social Security taxes in investment accounts, George W. Bush has offered the most important Social Security reform since the program's inception, and what has it gotten him? Terror in the old-age home? No, instead, for the first time ever, the Republican presidential candidate has pulled about even with Democrats in voters' trust on this vital issue.
Americans don't hate the right; they don't hate anybody. Voters want nice people and nice politics. Good folks, they know, can be Republicans or Democrats. They don't want nasty names or ideological labels lobbed into their living rooms.
George W. understands this new mood very well, it is clear, from an interview with The New York Times just before the convention opened Monday, where he promised to highlight his Texas record of working and playing well with Democrats.
"One of the things that people don't really know about me is that I've been good about bringing people together to get things accomplished in Texas," he said, and promised not to subject "the other side to public ridicule."
Leaving good folks like Al 'n' Hill in the desperate position of needing to go negative in this new Era of Good Feelings, when nice guys finish first.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.
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