This is not the first time that George W. Bush has faced a different race from the one for which he had prepared.
He entered the primaries expecting Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes to divide the right-wingers. He would be the centrist alternative.
Instead, Bush was blind-sided by the meteoric burst of Sen. John McCain, who rocketed past Bush on the left, upsetting the whole strategy. After New Hampshire, the Bush campaign looked awfully wobbly, but George W. Bush recovered his equilibrium and crafted a new strategy. If McCain wanted to risk alienating the party's conservative core, Bush would embrace it -- and win.
The ground has again shifted beneath Bush's feet. He entered the general election prepared to do battle on the basis of personalities. He would never mention the disgraced outgoing president, but would by tone and manner signal that he was the anti-Clinton (and, as William Kristol shrewdly observed in The Weekly Standard, the anti-Gingrich). It would all be subtle and understated: "I want Americans to have a president they can be proud of." And, "I work with Republicans and Democrats to get things done." Bush banked on the fact that Gore's association with Clinton, and Bush's own sunny personality, would together be enough to win.
But since the Democratic convention, many voters have decided that Gore might be a fine fellow, too. We were instructed that he loves his wife and helps his kids with their homework. And did he not tell us point blank that he is his "own man"? The same Americans who were willing to give Clinton a pass on Monica, money and mendacity now seem willing to give Gore a pass on Clinton.
So, must Bush "go negative" and impugn Gore's character or stick to the issues and craft a clear alternative to Gore's liberalism? The answer, it seems clear, is both.
As Kristol wisely observes, by adopting an above-the-fray pose earlier in the campaign, Bush may have gained points for non-partisanship, but he lost the chance to take credit for some of the accomplishments of the Republican Congress. Unless Bush identifies to some extent with the conservatives in Congress, Clinton and Gore will get all the credit for the economy, welfare reform, the balanced budget and more.
Bush needn't be nasty, but he does have to point out to voters what sort of policy initiatives the Republican congress prevented -- Hillarycare, budget deficits -- and what policy successes it made possible -- welfare reform, the balanced budget. He can then renew his promise to work with both parties if he should be elected.
Though Gore was able to consolidate his base and pick up some independents with his paleo-liberal convention address, he also opened himself to exactly the sort of criticism Bush pere leveled against Michael Dukakis. Gore has painted himself a corner with his extravagant promises on everything from universal day care to prescription drug coverage for everyone to tax deductible college payments. The Gore proposals to date, according to the National Taxpayers Union, amount to something like $2.3 trillion in new or additional federal spending -- enough to eat up all of the anticipated surplus for the next 10 years and then some.
`Gore is also vulnerable on the social issues. He can and should be challenged for his positions on the Boy Scouts and homosexual scout masters, school choice (unlike Bush, Gore sent his kids to private schools), affirmative action, bilingual education and partial-birth abortion. Gore got a huge bounce by choosing Lieberman. Yet the sort of judges Gore would appoint would rule against everything Lieberman stood for before he jettisoned his principles.
Nor is it unfair to ask whether Gore still considers the internal combustion engine the greatest threat to mankind, as he asserted in his book "Earth in the Balance."
Gore has praised Clinton as one of our finest presidents. He can and should be asked whether his administration will also trade cash for policy, as "one of our greatest presidents" so evidently did.
If Bush wants to do it all with a smile, fine. But if the next two months are only about personality, Gore will win.