Why the Center Is Dangerous for Dubya

“This election is not about ideology; it’s about competence,” Michael Dukakis told the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta on accepting its presidential nomination in 1988. The “competence, not ideology” slogan proved a bad strategy for attacking a sitting vice president in prosperous times. But it could do wonders for Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election, especially if George W. Bush follows the advice of the politico-journalistic establishment and moves to the center. Look out, Dubya! It’s a trap!

The only commentator who seems to understand this is Paul Gigot, who began his “Potomac Watch” column on the March 17 editorial page Wall Street Journal thusly:

You’ve read the smart-aleck tout sheets:The November election now pits two centrist nonreformers–Harvard against Yale. Banana Republic against J. Crew–who will fight ferociously over nothing much. The outcome hardly matters.Don’t believe it.

Gigot then bends himself like a pretzel arguing that the 2000 election will be “the most ideologically significant since 1980,” even though Americans are “more or less content with the status quo,” and that it will be so for reasons that have little to do with the candidates themselves. Gigot’s argument is too convoluted to do justice to here. In the end, it isn’t very convincing. So why is Chatterbox praising this column? Because implicitly, it recognizes the danger Republicans face if they allow the 2000 election to be fought on “competence, not ideology.”

The danger isn’t merely that these are flush times and that Bill Clinton has proved an emphatically non-ideological president (unless you consider Clinton’s rigid doctrine that he never committed perjury about Monica Lewinsky to represent an ideology). The danger is also that by all but one objective measure, Al Gore would have to be judged more “competent” (i.e., smarter and more experienced) than Dubya. Gigot doesn’t actually blurt this out, but it’s undeniable. Let’s run through them:

  1. Communication. Gore can speak in whole sentences. Dubya can’t.
  2. Retention. Gore can usually name important world leaders. Dubya can’t.
  3. White House experience. Gore has been deeply involved in White House decision-making. Dubya hasn’t, except peripherally, when his father was in office.
  4. Intellect. Gore reads books. Dubya doesn’t.
  5. Washington experience. Gore has dealt with national and international issues for more than two decades–first in the House, then in the Senate, then in the White House. Dubya has dealt with them only to the extent they’ve affected the state of Texas. That’s one reason he’s desperately arguing that Washington experience is inherently corrupting–a liability rather than an asset.
  6. Temperament. Gore can keep his cool when someone challenges him. Dubya can’t.
  7. Executive experience. This is the one Gore loses: Dubya has been the boss. Gore hasn’t.

The intelligence matchup between Gore and Dubya must include a few caveats. Gore’s high-school and college grades, like Bush’s, were lousy. (For details, read Bill Turque’s new Gore biography or check out David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima’s March 19 Washington Post story.) But Gore has made up for lost time. You can argue that Gore’s affection for Big Ideas is sometimes taken to silly extremes; Chatterbox took some glee a few years back exposing a series of pompous dinners Gore hosted in the vice president’s mansion on the decline of Metaphor in American life. (The Metaphor piece can be accessed through the Wall Street Journal’s online archive, but you have to pay. Click here to read Chatterbox’s 1997 U.S. News piece “Albert the Brainiac.” Louis Menand wrote a somewhat more sympathetic assessment of Gore’s life of the mind a year or so later in The New Yorker.) But surely it’s better to be a little pretentious than it is to be an ignoramus, as Bush appears to be.

All right, then. We’re agreed: If the 2000 election is about “competence, not ideology”–that is, if it’s a race to the non-ideological center–then Gore wins. So why is the New York Times chiding Bush for not embracing John McCain’s campaign-finance plan? (Click here and here to read Chatterbox’s earlier defenses of Bush on this score.) Why the endless drumbeat in the press for Bush to distance himself from Pat Robertson and his somewhat conservative tax-cut plan? Why the constant assertion that Bush must tack left to regain the center? A paranoid explanation would be that since most national reporters are Democrats, they want to lure Bush to a place where Gore can beat him. More likely, though, the press’s tendency to confuse an advocacy of centrism with objectivity is working against Bush.

Paranoid’s corner

: Chatterbox plans to vote for Al Gore next November. Does that mean that this whole argument is a ruse to keep Bush from doing what he must do to win–that is, move to the center? Could be. Chatterbox can’t fully account for the workings of his own unconscious. As far as his conscious mind goes, however, Chatterbox feels fairly certain that Gigot (who will almost certainly vote for Bush) has it right–that Bush will suffer if the race is seen as a Battle of the Centrists.