What is it about in 2000?

Posted: Nov 03, 2000 12:00 AM
Early Tuesday morning, you will find my husband and me at our local polling place with our three sons. Each of us recalls being taken to the voting booth when we were too young to have opinions. Pulling the lever our parents pointed at was a thrill nonetheless -- an early taste of our inheritance. What is the election of 2000 about? Though daily polls have carpet-bombed us with who is up and by how much, analysis has been thin. Was Al Gore's lead following the Democratic convention attributable to his left/liberal speech, his declaration of independence from Bill Clinton or The Kiss? What did voters like about George Bush's debate performance? We cannot be sure. Only after voters have emerged from the booth Tuesday to answer questions put by exit pollsters will we get a clearer picture of what truly moved people. But even in the final hours of the campaign, we can see the first stirrings of what post-election spin may look like. The Democrats, who frankly expect to lose, are starting to say unkind things about the electorate. This is understandable. After losing the New Hampshire primary, the late Mo Udall called a press conference. "The people have spoken," he intoned. "The bastards." In that spirit, though minus the humor, Gore supporters are beginning to say that George W. Bush's pleasing personality turned voters' heads. Sound familiar? That's what they said about Ronald Reagan's appeal, too. And just as they denigrated Reagan's intelligence, they scorn George Bush's gray matter. While Gore is clearly the more fluent and articulate candidate, it is not at all clear that he is smarter. And even if he were, it is far from clear, looking at history, that there is any correspondence between intelligence and successful presidencies (think of Nixon, Carter and Johnson). What is most needed in a president is exactly what Bush claims (very plausibly) to have: judgment. Clearly, intelligence is part of judgment -- but so is a balanced nature, an open spirit and a strong ego. Clinton is highly intelligent, but his character flaws constantly impede his judgment. Former Sen. Warren Rudman, not someone with whom I tend to agree politically but a senator who arguably enjoyed two successful terms, once noted that most effective members of congress were those (he was being modest) not afraid to hire staffers who were smarter than they were. Besides, the notion that intelligence is the key rests on the idea that leadership is like solving math problems -- the smarter guy gets to the right answer first. But of course political philosophy, values and temperament all affect the choices leaders make -- to say nothing of their capacity to persuade others. Modesty is important part of judgment, too -- knowing when to hold back, when not to substitute your opinion for that of people closer to the problem. Bush's embrace of federalism embodies that wisdom. In choosing the distinguished Dick Cheney as his running mate, and by surrounding himself with highly intelligent and eminent advisors, Bush has given hints both of good judgment and of solid self-confidence. But of course, elections are not just personality contests (though voters are correct to weigh character in the mix). They are always about issues, and in 2000 it seems Al Gore miscalculated about where the electorate really is on the important questions of the day. For while Gore hammered away at Bush about the "top 1 percent" of earners and promised (ad nauseum) to keep Social Security in an impregnable lockbox, voters seemed more in tune with Bush's limited government message. Despite Gore's fulminations about "fighting for you" against the powerful, an equal number of voters told Gallup that Bush "cares about the needs of people like you." And more voters think Bush "generally agrees with you on issues you care about." Though liberals fondly imagined that the gun control issue would prove damaging to Bush, sizable majorities agreed with the Republican, not the Democrat, on that wedge issue, forcing Gore to backpedal and reassure voters that "hunters and sportsmen" would be untouched by his proposals. Throughout the campaign, at every crucial juncture, Gore has been the more nimble candidate. But Bush was wiser.