IN BUT A WEEK, George W. Bush has begun to raise his campaign from the depths of the subliminable.
After a six-week Gore surge, the Texas governor now finds himself enjoying a surprising, slight lead in the latest Voter.com Battleground 2000 poll. It didn’t take much for Bush to reverse his fortunes. He only needed a few consecutive days without any high-profile missteps, miscues, or mistakes -- and a long overdue assist from Al Gore.
Last week, he got them both.Campaign 2000 has turned into an odd sort of shoot-out. The candidates have little interest in sniping at each other -- that would violate the nice-at-all-costs rule of politically correct campaigning. Instead, they’ve taken up target practice on their own feet. A long string of Bush blunders prolonged Gore’s post-convention bounce, which has now halted only because Bush has managed to go a full week without embarrassing himself -- and Gore hasn’t.
Blunders are now the main indication of a candidate’s chances in the November election because they are all that differentiate the contenders in an otherwise issueless campaign. While there are significant philosophical differences that separate Bush and Gore -- abortion and gun control, for example -- the two have opted to fight over the mushy middle of the American electorate, and leave the controversies behind.
To the casual observer, it would seem that the candidates disagree only on how best to enact a federal entitlement to prescription drugs. That leaves gaffes -- an approximate measure of competence and character -- as the only way for the uninformed voter to gauge the differences between the uninformative candidates. Bush’s gaffes are said to point to a deficient intellect, while Gore’s point to a defective conscience.
So Bush looked like a dunce when he called a New York Times reporter a “major league” expletive in the presence of live microphones. He looked unserious when he tried to avoid meeting Gore in three nationally televised debates. And he looked desperate when Democrats charged that he was covertly calling them “RATS” in a campaign commercial.
That last charge seems far-fetched, but it was enough to make Bush’s campaign, once again, appear incompetent -- an impression the candidate only reinforced when he insisted, repeatedly, that the ad contained no “subliminable” messages.
But just as Bush seemed ready to pummel himself into oblivion, Gore stepped in and delivered a series of sharp uppercuts to his own jaw.
First the Boston Globe discovered that an anecdote Gore had been peddling on the campaign trail -- about how his family pays three times as much to buy the same arthritis medicine for his mother-in-law as it does for his Labrador retriever -- was false. Gore had simply used statistics from a Democratic study, cooked the numbers to emphasize his point, then scripted his family story to fit them.
Then came Gore and running-mate Joe Lieberman’s pandering performance at a Hollywood fundraiser. After a week of denouncing Hollywood for peddling sleaze to minors, the Democratic candidates praised, coddled and accepted large donations from its top executives. The acrobatics might have boosted campaign coffers, but they undermined their public credibility.
Gore’s setbacks managed to shift momentum in Bush’s favor, but another high-profile Bush faux pas could easily send the pendulum back in Gore’s direction. With polls rising and falling on the basis of public-relations slip-ups, the election seems destined to go to the last man standing -- the one who succeeds in avoiding any major gaffes in the final hours leading up to election day. That’s a bad sign for Bush, given his penchant for malapropisms, which, unlike Gore’s deceptions, are always easy to spot.
Bush’s best hope for saving his campaign from his own stumbles is to embrace them. During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Gore masterfully turned a widely perceived liability -- his wooden reputation -- into an asset. “I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy … but the presidency is more than a popularity contest.”
Bush might want to try a similar approach. He could say: “I may not always speak smoothly, but I’ll always speak truthfully. I may get tongue-tied, but at least I don’t speak with a forked tongue.”
That might violate the nice-at-all-cost rules of politically correct campaigning, but in issueless campaigns, nice guys -- especially nice guys who put their foot in their mouth -- finish last.