Douglas Koopman

March 1, 2000

The general election campaign for president already begins in earnest, with polls showing Al Gore and George Bush in a virtual dead heat. Nine months out, the early conventional wisdom is that Gore is better positioned to win in November because his Democratic party avoided the nastiness of the Republican primary fight.

But the conventional wisdom is probably wrong. Right now the advantage has to go to George W. Bush of Texas. The tussle with McCain temporarily weakened frontrunner Bush, but it strengthened the party overall. The Democrats’ non-contest did the opposite, making Gore look strong within his party, but weakening the party as a whole.

First, the Republicans. Most of Bush’s weaknesses were uncovered and exploited by the McCain campaign with help from the Arizona senator’s cheering section in the media. Bush was accused of being an intellectual lightweight, inarticulate, shielded from the media and public by his staff, and, of course, too closely tied to the religious right. Thanks to the attacks, Bush’s campaign began to compensate for these weaknesses to win the primaries, four or five months before they otherwise would. Bush changed his campaign style to be more open and freewheeling, and McCain’s religious attack bolstered the Texas governor’s core support at just the right moment without Bush having to lift a finger.

And while the race was on, Republican turnout soared in nearly every state. The names and addresses of those voters are already making their way to local Republican parties searching for potential new converts to the Republican party. At least some of these will become part of a broader Republican party base in the fall.

For Bush, the way ahead is clear. Politically conservative religious voters are in his pocket. He can focus on the “compassion” side of his compassionate conservatism, emphasizing education, “faith-based” partnerships on domestic concerns, and restoring morality to the White House. And he must also make some appeal to McCain voters by raising the level of charisma (not easy) and reformism (somewhat easier) in his campaign and party. A Bush-McCain ticket is the best option, but any unconventional vice presidential choice like Elizabeth Dole, Fred Thompson, or Colin Powell and a better-focused message of reform would accomplish much the same result.

The Democrats are not so lucky. Sure, Al Gore made such short work of Bill Bradley that neither broke a sweat, and few Democratic voters expended energy going to the polls. Democratic turnout in most states was the lowest it had ever been, even before the contest was officially decided. And Gore won so easily by beating Bradley in a shameless contest of promising to expand government and politicize the judicial and executive branches. Pandering to the likes of Reverend Al Sharpton, pro-abortion activists and the blue-collar and education labor bosses, Gore sewed up his delegates by promising a larger and more intrusive federal government in education, housing, and health care, and by creating or resurrecting liberal litmus tests for Supreme Court and military appointees on the subjects of affirmative action, gay rights and abortion.

Temporarily lost in all attention to the Republican contest, these promises moved Gore out of the political mainstream to the far left end of the electorate. Unlike Bush, Gore was not pushed to the extreme by an unfair caricature in the media or attacks from a threatening opponent. He moved to the extreme openly and under his own volition. He’s likely to reinforce that move in selecting a running mate who meets with the approval of the traditional party constituencies.

The public inattention to Gore’s list of promises provides another opening for Bush. The Texan has the chance to present a new and more disturbing sets of facts about Gore to voters already concerned about the vice-president’s campaign fundraising and too-close association with Bill Clinton. So Gore is put in the difficult position of backtracking on the promises he made or, more likely, denying that he made them and then trying to change the subject with a spirited attack on Bush. Not a good strategy in a year where voters seem enamored with “straight talk.”

The presidential winner this year will be the one who moves successfully to the middle and who can exhibit some courage and charisma while doing so. On both counts, that will be more difficult for Al Gore than for George Bush. But not by much.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.