Ballot Box

Dilemma of the Ruthless Democrat

As a journalist covering the election, I get several e-mail releases every day from both presidential campaigns. Here are the headlines from some of the Gore messages from last week that are still in my in-box waiting to be read:

Monday, April 17
–Even Advisers Know Bush Can’t Pay for His Plans. Washington Times Reports Bush Advisers Internally Opposed Health Plan Due to Costs
–Bush Campaign Touts Evaporation of 18 Point Lead in Michigan. Candidates’ [sic] Tax Plan and Previous New Mexico Release Show Bush Team Has Trouble With Numbers.Tuesday April 18
–Dallas Morning News Reports Bush Tax Cut Resulted in $1 Million Tax Break For Company of Former Bush Business Partner - Richard Rainwater
–Housing Proposals Lack Foundation: Texas Does Little To Help Low Income Families Pay for Housing, Buy Homes. Department Of Housing Under Investigation by FBI for Bribery, Questionable Practices
–What Is Bush Hiding? New York Times Article Reports Bush Will Not Commit to Revealing His Tax Returns Before November Election.Wednesday, April 18
–Bush Called On To Clearly State Position on Confederate Flag–Up or Down? Bush Has Repeatedly Dodged Questions About South Carolina Flag Controversy.Thursday, April 19
–“Now That’s Leadership”–Bush, Again, Fails To Take Stand on Flying Confederate Flag
–Required Reading: Reformer With Results? Texas Teachers Don’t Think SoFriday, April 20
–Required Reading: Education Experts: “Texas Miracle” Is a Myth. Washington Posts Reports Growing Corps of Skeptics Believe That Bush’s Record on Education Is Less Than Miraculous
–“Scathing” Report on Bush’s Housing Agency Highlights Another Failure in Leadership

I have a pretty good guess what I’ll conclude when I get around to wading through these statements. Some of Gore’s criticisms will rate as legitimate, others as somewhat unfair and distorted, and still others as scurrilous. But sustaining his case on any one of these issues is much less important to the Gore campaign than the overall effect of the ceaseless barrage. In issuing several accusations a day–and this during what is generally described as the cautious, reserved part of his campaign–Gore is betting he can seize the upper hand and keep Bush on the defensive. If the tactic feels familiar, it’s because it’s what Gore always does. He used the same sort of pepper spray on Bill Bradley in the primaries, leaving him wheezing and gasping for air. In a tight spot, the vice president did not hesitate to grossly distort his opponent’s record, to imply that he was insensitive to blacks, or to mock him as an impractical egghead. If you know Gore, you know he’ll do essentially the same thing to Bush: rip into his flesh like a crazed weasel while grinning and promising never to make a “negative personal attack” against an opponent. 

It may sound as if I’m condemning Gore’s brutality on the campaign trail. In fact, I have distinctly mixed feelings about having a cold-blooded campaigner like Gore as the Democratic nominee. Like a lot of liberals, I prefer to think of my side as having higher ethical standards–a presumption that began with Watergate and that appears less justified with each passing election. On the other hand, we have a bitter collective memory of campaigns like 1972 and 1988 when an upright, hapless Democratic nominee fell prey to an unscrupulous Republican. If we libs wince at the way Gore sometimes plays the game, we’re also relieved that he won’t be easily rolled. The fact that the decent and honorable Bill Bradley would surely have served as a piñata for George W. Bush was, to many Democrats, reason enough to not vote for him.

The modern history of the GOP’s use of despicable campaign tactics begins in 1968 with Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern strategy.” Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey by hinting to segregationists that he was on their side. In 1972, Nixon kept up his use of racial wedge issues while adding outright corruption and dirty tricks to the Republican mix. Watergate meant a Democratic victory in 1976 and a much-reduced amount of outright corruption on the part of both parties thereafter. But Ronald Reagan’s winning campaigns in 1980 and 1984 still contained elements of unfairness, drawing as they did both on Nixon’s old racial semaphore and a new kind of dishonesty about the economy. Democrats paid the price for their principles. In 1984, Walter Mondale told the public that the budget deficit couldn’t be reduced without higher taxes and lost the election. Reagan lied about the deficit and won.

The high-water mark of Republican electoral sleaziness was George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, as choreographed by Lee Atwater. Bush smeared Michael Dukakis with a series of entirely symbolic issues that skirted the edge of slander –the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag, Dukakis’ “card-carrying” membership in the ACLU, and Willie Horton. Through the use of such themes, Bush conveyed the impression that Dukakis, a moderate technocrat, was in fact an extreme left-winger deficient in patriotism and sympathetic only to the rights of black criminals. It’s interesting that 1988 has become a kind of template for this year’s race, but with the tables turned. In the common analogy, it’s George W. Bush who takes the part of Dukakis–the unseasoned governor trying to coast to victory on thin accomplishments won in jolly economic times. And it’s Gore who plays the role of Bush the elder–the do-anything-to-win vice president who hangs a distorted version of the challenger’s record around his neck.

In 1992, after three consecutive defeats, Democrats resolved not to be Atwaterized again. The Bush re-election campaign threw the same kinds of mud at Bill Clinton that it had at Dukakis, including loaded “questions” about why Clinton had visited Russia as a graduate student and protested the Vietnam War in a foreign country. The GOP convention in Houston was another ugly effort to portray liberals as un-American. But in Clinton and James Carville, Bush and the GOP operatives finally met their match. Clinton and Gore won the White House with a highly aggressive campaign that was nonetheless more honest and ethical than the Bush-Quayle effort. In 1996, Clinton and Gore won again, this time behaving in a way that was marginally less honest and ethical than their Republican opponents. The Democrats willfully mischaracterized Bob Dole as someone who wanted to slash social spending and stoked a fund-raising machine that operated on the principle of willful blindness toward the sources of big contributions.

At the moment, the balance of nastiness continues to shift away from the GOP and toward the Democrats. Gore may be a more upright person than Clinton is, but as a candidate he’s more ruthless and more of a panderer (see under González, Elián). As a result, the 2000 campaign may be the first time that Republicans begin to view themselves in the way Democrats once did–as perennial victims of the other side’s unfair tactics. To be sure, Bush has his own, hereditary ruthless streak. In South Carolina, he sanctioned an Atwater-style campaign that stopped the John McCain bandwagon in its tracks. But my impression is that at a personal level, Bush simply lacks Gore’s remorseless killer instinct. If the campaign goes as I expect, Democrats will finally forfeit all claims of higher ethical standards. In the worst-case scenario, they will lose both their old campaign scruples and the White House as well.

Photograph  of Al Gore on the Slate Table of Contents by Lou Dematteis/Reuters.