Frame Game

John McClinton

{{Slate’s Political Roundup#73099}}

Throughout the 2000 campaign, pundits have waited for Al Gore to defend Bill Clinton. After all, they figured, Clinton has presided over the best economy in history and has whipped the GOP in nearly every policy fight. Surely, they reasoned, Clinton’s shrewd tactics against Republicans—portraying them as the party of the rich, calling their tax cuts a threat to Social Security, and depicting their voucher plans as a threat to public schools—furnished a promising platform from which to defeat George W. Bush. Last night in a debate in New Hampshire, that platform was finally seized … by John McCain. (Click here to read Jacob Weisberg’s report from the debate.)

1. Multiculturalism. The first question posed to all the Republican candidates was about race relations. Every candidate other than McCain, including Bush, said racial differences should be dissolved into a common American identity. Gary Bauer went further: “Illegal immigrants are pouring into this country, and my party ought to stand against it.” McCain agreed with his colleagues that racial quotas were harmful. “But I also think it is very important that we preserve our rich heritage,” he added. “In my state, Hispanic heritage has made us wonderful and great and noble, and I want to preserve that. I also want to underscore the fact that we still have a lot of people down at the bottom rung of the economic ladder that need a lot of help.”

2. Republican money. At the first opportunity to ask a question, McCain brought up campaign reform. “The Republican Party is now setting up a mechanism for this huge soft money thing. Democrats are, also,” he charged. As the debate wore on, he went after the GOP. “Gov. Bush says that it’s unilateral disarmament if we get the special interests out of Washington,” McCain scoffed. He chastised Bush for arguing that “it’s bad for our party if we have campaign-finance reform. I’ve always had the belief that what’s good for our country is good for our party. … I’m not proud when the Republican Party is taking $7 million from the tobacco companies.” McCain later told Bush, “We also know what’s going on with some of your people right now. They’re setting up soft money to be used … in the general campaign.”

3. Government programs. Co-moderator Karen Brown brought up Clinton’s proposal to subsidize computers for the poor. She asked the candidates, “Is it an appropriate use of government funds to hand out computers and provide Internet access to those who can’t afford it?” Alan Keyes replied that the government should stay out of this enterprise. Steve Forbes said education should be privatized. But McCain answered: “There’s a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in America—those that are able to take part in information technology and those that haven’t. We took a major step forward when we decided to wire every school and library in America to the Internet. That’s a good program.” When Bush suggested that “government funding and government programs” were too slow and clumsy for the job, McCain replied, “It was a government program that invented the Internet.” Astonished to hear this statement from a Republican, everyone looked at McCain to see whether he was joking. He wasn’t.

4. Tax cuts. Co-moderator Bernard Shaw asked McCain: “You and President Clinton propose setting aside about two-thirds of the federal budget surplus and making it off-limits for tax cuts. What do you say to critics who say your tax plan looks too much like President Clinton’s?” Far from disputing this comparison, McCain embraced and expanded it. “Maybe President Clinton’s looks too much like mine,” McCain answered. “He looked too much like me when he signed the welfare reform act. He looked too much like me in a number of shifts that he made to the center for political expediency.” Picking up on his refrain that Bush’s tax-cut proposal is recklessly excessive and skewed toward the rich, McCain asserted, “People in New Hampshire are telling me, ‘Sen. McCain, save Social Security. Put some money into Medicare, and pay down that debt.’ ” McCain recited how much of the surplus he would allocate to each of these accounts. His numbers closely resembled Clinton’s.

5. Defense. At his second opportunity to ask a question, McCain pressed Bush about wasteful spending. Rather than cite bureaucracy or welfare or foreign aid as examples, McCain asked, “What corporate loopholes would you close?” Unsatisfied with Bush’s answer, McCain followed up: “You have been talking about how you want to increase the military. We don’t have unlimited funds. Tell me, [are] there any military programs that you would reduce spending on?” Bush obliged him by naming one program and promising to find others.

6. Education. Bush brought up his proposal to let parents of “disadvantaged” children in bad schools “choose a different school.” He told McCain, “Two people have openly criticized this plan—you and the vice president.” McCain shot back, “If you’re saying that I’m like Al Gore, then you’re spinning like Bill Clinton.” But in his next breath, McCain delivered Gore’s argument. While agreeing with Bush on the general merit of vouchers, he charged, “You want to use funds from public education. I don’t want to take funds from public education. … You’re asking to [take] money … out of public education for vouchers when they need that money.”

On several occasions, McCain lambasted Clinton’s character. “The people of this country are suffering from Clinton fatigue, and it’s because they want someone who will look them in the eye and tell them the truth,” he argued. In other words, McCain was saying, it’s not because they want someone whose policies will differ from Clinton’s. This was supposed to be Gore’s campaign message. He was supposed to run on Clinton’s platform while denouncing Clinton’s conduct. But McCain got there first. He’s showcasing his moderation against the dogmas of his party, recapturing the middle ground from the opposing party, and claiming it was his ground to begin with. That’s not just running like Al Gore. That’s spinning like Bill Clinton.