Bush, the polls and the 'character issue'

Posted: Sep 06, 2000 12:00 AM
A certain something is in the air: an apprehension, a palpable nervousness. More than a few of those Bush backers who recently were whistling merrily along, not a care in the world, are darting uneasy glances at polls showing Al Gore with huge gains. Could Al, after all, win it? A professional busybody makes bold to advertise the conviction to which he held at the height of the whistling, and still holds. You bet your life Gore could win. As could Bush. Things are just about normal: which is to say, both parties, both tickets, should worry and work. Political conventions bring clarity to just about any extended campaign. Voters quit matching Republican against Republican, Democrat against Democrat. They start matching Republican against Democrat. Any Republican who doubts the pull and puissance of the Democrats has been watching too many old Ronald Reagan movies. The Democrats speak to and for a broad swath of the population. The Democrats themselves understand this. As Congress reconvenes, their Capitol Hill leadership is pugnaciously seeking to make hay with issues like health care and the budget. Republican blood curdled as Gore, at the Democratic convention, laid into Big This, Big That, Big-the-Other. But, you know what, numerous voters dislike bigness, or think they do when not reading their mutual fund reports. A related advantage for the Democrats: Denunciations of golden-egg-laying geese seem less perverse during a golden-egg surplus like the one to which Bill Clinton and Al Gore are staking claim. Democrats enjoy another advantage: the culture's mood of relaxation. Coming off a president who calls himself Bill, we're offered one who calls himself Al -- and campaigns in earth-toned sports shirts. A decade or so ago, no presidential candidate in his right mind would have whooped it up for gay rights and abortion (aka "the right to choose.") In the new century, a Democratic president vetoes a bill intended to outlaw the abortion of partially delivered babies, and the homosexualist lobby demands that corporations and the United Way stop funding the Boy Scouts of America. These things happen because of a growing sense that Americans no longer take much interest in questions formerly deemed moral. Polls? Republican jaws sag at polls showing Gore in the lead? What about those polls attesting to the apparently undeflatable popularity of our first impeached president? In other words, this thing -- the winning of a presidential election -- isn't as easy as holding a placid, upbeat convention. The Gore-Lieberman ticket is tough. But wait. That isn't all. Matters aren't as far out of balance as Republicans, with their case of the post-Los Angeles blues, may assume. Whereas Democratic presidential tickets have their natural and perennial constituencies, so do Republican tickets. These constituencies are available for firing up -- by candidates with the right combustible materials. And what would those be? In policy terms, school vouchers, tax cuts, and privatized Social Security. But who says policy is truly the big mobilizing factor this year? I'm about to suggest two factors that could outweigh the others: dignity and integrity. Here, I venture, are Bush's long suits in the presidential bridge game. If he plays them non-stop, he could do well. With all respect to Bush, Al Gore knows better than he does the location of the various Washington power levers, and the techniques for working them. With respect to Tipper's romantic partner, Bush is this year's character candidate. That just might make all difference. But do the people really want character? Wouldn't they prefer Medicare funds for prescriptions? We'll find out for sure in two months. Meantime, an intuition: Most of the people, most of the time, want character in their maximum leaders. And it need not be all the people: just the ones who acknowledge that presidential behavior matters, and who don't yawn when politicians knuckle their foreheads to unions and lifestyle lobbies. Bush's policy proposals are mostly good. But his dignity, his family and religious life, and his moral distance from the present White House -- whatever good these factors do him in the long run -- are what make him stand out; yes, even from the Joe Lieberman who praises the president he became famous for criticizing. Far from ending, the 2000 campaign has barely begun.