What polls can't measure

Posted: Aug 22, 2000 12:00 AM
Al Gore is enjoying a post-convention bounce. But there may be less there than meets the eye. Presidential candidates always get a lift in the polls after a convention -- all of the news attention, the chatter and possibly even some of the speeches goose the man's popularity for a week or two. But some polls don't distinguish between ordinary Americans and "likely voters" (who comprise only half of eligible voters). And no poll can read the subtle, yet significant "passion" factor. Yet passion is what determines turnout. And turnout determines elections. In 1992, after 12 years of Republican rule in the White House, the Democrats wanted it bad. This year, it's the Republicans who are loaded for bear. Much has been made of the Republicans' willingness to paper over differences among themselves on issues like gay rights and abortion. But the real story out of Philadelphia is that while conservatives were certainly ready to swallow a lot in the name of victory, George W. Bush has not forced them to. He chose a solid, intelligent conservative as running mate and has demonstrated a sincere appreciation for conservative ideas. His "compassionate conservatism" has been widely interpreted (by the liberal press) as a repudiation of Newt Gingrich and the congressional Republicans. But it is far more consequential than that. What Bush is attempting, as Shelby Steele shrewdly noted in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago, is to wrench from the hands of the Democrats the moral high ground on domestic policy. Conservative intellectuals have been attempting this (many believe they've succeeded) for two decades. But Bush is the first major Republican politician to try to launch these ideas into policy is a systematic way. Meanwhile, it is the Democrats who are frantically throwing up flying buttresses, attempting to keep their wobbly cathedral standing. In the aftermath of the Democratic convention -- brave denials notwithstanding -- a key Democratic constituency, black voters, walks away at best listless and at worst bitter. The choice of Joe Lieberman, while perhaps reassuring New Democrats and independent swing voters that the Democrats are not the Swingin' Intern party, has left black Democrats irritated. In part, this is because Al Gore could not resist the temptation to present himself as some sort of civil-rights pioneer. He painted the Lieberman pick as a breakthrough for an oppressed minority, and took the opportunity to get in a few licks against the Republicans, implying that anyone who would vote against the ticket because a Jew was number two was probably a Republican anyway. (Imagine if a Republican had made such a remark about the Democrats!) Well, the idea that Lieberman's selection marked an ethnic milestone was ridiculous anyway. American Jews are thriving in America and conspicuously not in need of symbolic boosts. It is also clearly untrue. Lieberman's Jewishness was relevant only because his piety reinforces his image as a serious, moral person. He could just as well have been a Buddhist, for Gore's purposes. (Oops, no, there's that temple gig to think about. Okay, a Mormon.) But since Gore couldn't resist painting himself as some sort of civil rights pioneer in picking Lieberman, many black Democrats feel slighted. Blacks, they argue, have suffered far more on these shores than Jews, so if the point is to make a gesture, why not a black VP? But making matters worse was the fact that Lieberman had expressed support for anti-affirmative action measures like California's Proposition 209. And, while more blacks (particularly inner-city blacks) than whites support school vouchers, they are emphatically opposed by black Democrats, staunch allies of the teachers' unions. Lieberman has deviated on this question, too, and was forced to recant in a "re-education" style meeting with the Democratic National Committee's black caucus. (Lieberman could have refused, but has shown himself more interested in power than principle.) A number of black leaders let fly with frankly anti-Semitic diatribes when Lieberman was named, and while the leadership of the Democratic Party has attempted to squelch these obnoxious outbursts, the whole episode does not exactly leave black Democrats charged up and ready to rush to the polls. Republicans, by contrast, are enjoying the heady, if somewhat unfamiliar sensation of preparing to vote for someone they like who can actually win.