Politics, like chess or basketball, becomes more sophisticated as the history of the game progresses. Players study each other’s habits, learn from past mistakes, and anticipate moves and countermoves further in advance. Neither candidate in this year’s presidential race will ignore attacks as Michael Dukakis did in 1988, write off an adulterous opponent as George Bush did in 1992, or ally himself with an unpopular Congress as Bob Dole did in 1996. Instead, victory will go to the player who figures out what his opponent can’t do—win an all-pawn endgame, shoot the ball while moving left, discuss foreign policy intelligently—and steers him into it. That’s what Al Gore has just done to George W. Bush.
Think back to the primaries. Gore was in danger of losing to Bill Bradley. What was Bradley’s strength? Tuning out the opponent and inspiring the audience. Bradley’s style was slow, abstract, and uplifting. He despised and refused to engage in petty conflict. So Gore engaged him. Gore’s implicit message was: “Come on, Bill. Hit me.” Bradley refused. Gore went on pummeling Bradley’s platform, exposing real flaws and distorting fake ones. When Bradley realized the blows were doing serious damage, he tried to hit back. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t his style.
Likewise, after New Hampshire, Bush was in danger of losing to John McCain. What was McCain’s strength? Character. He delivered straight talk. He had suffered for his country in Vietnam. He wasn’t just another politician. So, Bush made him act like one. He targeted McCain’s weakness: his temper. With a few hard jabs in South Carolina, he provoked McCain to declare on camera, “Bush’s ad twists the truth like Clinton.” Then Bush delivered the decisive counterpunch: “When John McCain compared me to Bill Clinton and said I was untrustworthy, that’s over the line. Disagree with me, fine. But do not challenge my integrity.” Suddenly, McCain looked like the politician and Bush looked like the wronged man of honor. McCain lost South Carolina badly and never recovered.
Now put yourself in Bush’s shoes on Super Tuesday. You face Gore in the general election. You’re ahead in the polls. Your opponent must find a way to take that lead from you. How will he do it? The same way he beat Bradley: attack. What will he go after? Your gubernatorial record, your tax cut, your plan to privatize part of Social Security. In elementary politics, the next question would be how to defend these targets. But in advanced politics, the question is more ambitious: How can you deprive your opponent of the attacking option altogether? By making it futile and counterproductive. How can you make it futile? By forcing your opponent, in the course of his attack, to call on an asset he lacks. And how can you make it counterproductive? By arranging your defense so that his failed attack exacerbates his chief weakness. You send a defender down court so you can rebound the opponent’s miss and throw a long pass for a dunk. You arrange your bishops to shred the enemy’s king side when he opens it by pushing pawns at you.
This is what the Bush campaign had in mind. The asset Gore lacks is credibility. He lost it by defending the Buddhist temple fund-raiser, claiming there was “no controlling legal authority,” hyping his role in the Internet, praising Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and generally coming across as a shameless spin artist. Bad credibility, in turn, implies a weakness: bad character. So, Bush set up the media and the electorate to judge any attack by Gore as a question of credibility and character. Again and again, Bush predicted that Gore would attack him out of desperation and carnivorous instinct. And each time Gore breathed anything negative about Bush’s ideas or his record, the Bush camp issued two replies: You can’t believe anything Gore says, and this just shows what a ruthless hit man he is.
If Gore had used his convention to attack Bush personally, as Democrats did to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, or had launched a full-scale assault on Bush’s gubernatorial record, as Bush’s father did to Dukakis in 1988 and Clinton in 1992, Bush’s counterpunch strategy might have worked. But Gore didn’t do that. Instead, he defined the race in populist terms: “They’re for the powerful. We’re for the people.” True or false, the charge was substantive. It was political, not personal. And to back it up, Gore cited a series of issues—health care, prescription drugs, tax cuts, family leave—on which the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress had tangled for six years. He promised, if elected, to pass a patients’ bill of rights, crack down on polluters, and secure the solvency of Medicare.
How was Bush to respond? The answer consistent with Bush’s long-range game plan—keeping the election focused on character, not policy—would have been to dismiss Gore’s populism as yet another costume. “Whatever else Al Gore is, we all know he’s never been a fighter against powerful interests,” Bush could have chuckled. “He’s been taking money from business folks his whole life. He’s just trying to reinvent himself again.” And the press would have bought this critique, because it’s essentially true. But that isn’t how Bush responded. Instead, he opened two new lines of attack. He called Gore’s promises a list of what Clinton and Gore had failed to accomplish in seven years. And he blamed that failure on their cynical, divisive partisanship, freshly illustrated by Gore’s “class warfare.” The day after Gore’s speech, Bush declared at a rally in Tennessee:
The voters have a clear choice. They got one candidate who wants four more years of finger-pointing and politicizing and blaming … who wants to wage class warfare to get ahead. I’ve got a different purpose. … A leader is somebody who finds common ground. Last night we heard a laundry list of new promises, which I thought was an attempt to cover up old failures. … [Gore] tried to separate himself from the squandered opportunities of his own administration. … Last night they were talking about making sure the Medicare system has prescription drugs. It’s amazing they’re still talking about it after seven years of power. It’s time to get a president who’s willing to work with Republicans and Democrats that will say there will be a prescription drug program for seniors who need it.
On the Sunday talk shows, Bush’s two principal surrogates, strategist Karl Rove and communications director Karen Hughes, reinforced those two arguments. As Hughes put it on CNN’s Late Edition:
What people saw on Thursday night in the vice president’s speech was, one, a litany of the promises unfulfilled from the Clinton administration. For example, they talk about prescription drug benefits for senior citizens yet, for the last seven years, have failed to do anything to provide prescription drug benefits for senior citizens. … But I think what they also heard was a vice president who talked about fighting, fighting everybody, and I think the American people are tired of all the fighting in Washington.
The trouble with these lines of attack is that they carry Bush into enemy terrain. They shift the debate away from character toward policy. Worse yet, they shift it from the future to the past. Bush gained the upper hand in the election by doing two things: 1) concentrating the public’s attention on Clinton’s scandals rather than Clinton’s excellent economic record or his popular positions on issues; and 2) focusing the policy discussion on the popular things Bush promises to do in the future rather than on the unpopular things congressional Republicans have done in the past. By portraying Gore as a warrior and associating his warfare with the major policy battles of the past six years, Bush undercut his whole game plan on the most important weekend of the campaign.
The talk shows illustrate this blunder. On Meet the Press, Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley was shown the video clip of Bush blaming Washington gridlock on Gore’s “class warfare.” Daley replied, “Al Gore has worked in the Senate, in the House, and as vice president with Republicans when they would work with us. Newt Gingrich and his group wasn’t too quick to want to work with the administration.” Minutes later, Rove charged that Gore’s “class warfare” had obstructed progress on prescription drugs, a patients’ bill of rights, and shoring up Medicare and Social Security. Again, Daley carried the argument to the GOP’s doorstep: “Newt Gingrich and the Republican leadership in the House and Senate over the last eight years haven’t been exactly willing to work with President Clinton or Vice President Gore, and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve had a stalemate on important issues as Karl has talked about.”
On This Week, Hughes said of Gore’s speech: “People across America heard a long list of the failures of his own administration. For seven years, they failed to provide prescription drug coverage. For seven years, they failed to get a patients’ bill of rights. … He wants to talk about fighting. They’re fighting in Washington.” To which Gore adviser Bob Shrum gladly rejoined:
It’s interesting to hear Karen talk about the failure to enact some of these things. Almost every Democrat in the House and the Senate is for these. Very few Republicans are. George Bush could move this process right now. If he’s really for a prescription drug benefit for all seniors under Medicare, which by the way is not in his budget, he ought to pick up the phone and call Trent Lott. … The reason he doesn’t pick up the phone and call Trent Lott is because he doesn’t want to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs, and the insurance companies.
This is a debate Bush can’t win. Politically, the Clinton position has beaten the Gingrich position every time. Bush’s whole campaign was designed to stay out of this quagmire. So how did he stumble into it? One possibility is that he and his advisers blundered. They thought “class warfare” was another character issue. It isn’t. It’s about class. And the Bush people themselves have unwisely identified it with all the health-care and retirement-security debates on which Democrats keep whipping Republicans. The Bush folks should have accused Gore of a political misdemeanor: lying about being a populist. Instead, they tried to nail him for a political felony: thwarting progress on important issues in Washington, through populist partisanship. They wanted to raise the stakes, and they did—to their own ruin.
Another possibility is that Bush’s plunge into the Gingrich-era policy morass was inevitable, because in the long run, content beats tone. Gore has been the candidate of content: policies, positions, and a record of battles in and against Congress. Bush has been the candidate of tone: decency, integrity, honor, purpose, optimism, compassion, leadership. Over the long term, content is more essential, because while content can convey tone, tone is always about content. Leadership is on Social Security. Compassion is toward single mothers. Fighting is for a patient’s bill of rights. On this theory, there was no way Bush could have made it all the way to Election Day without having to discuss exactly what policies should be—and should have been—fought for and about. And sooner or later, as the Republican nominee, Bush would have been obliged to go around the country saying to congressional Republicans what he now says at every campaign stop: “Help is on the way.”
The third possibility is that Gore forced Bush’s hand. His selection of Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Clinton’s speech to the Democratic convention on Monday, and Gore’s speech three nights later shattered Bush’s front-running game plan. Post-convention polls showed that in the space of two weeks Gore had sharply diminished his association with Clinton’s misconduct, reassured the public of his ability to lead, shored up his support on the left, and persuaded swing voters that he shared their values and would advance their interests in areas where they had previously preferred Bush. Above all, Gore had achieved this while persuading many voters of his trustworthiness and polarizing the election along the lines of the Washington policy wars rather than of incumbency, competence, or Bush’s Texas record. He hadn’t even mentioned Bush’s name. So when Bush struck back—which suddenly became essential—he had to do so in Washington policy terms. Whether by force or temptation, Gore provoked Bush to attempt the one maneuver he couldn’t afford. Bush will be lucky to survive it.