August 25, 2000
Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and National Review editor Rich Lowry analyze the dead heat race between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
MARGARET WARNER: For analysis of the politics of this post-convention week, we turn to Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and National Review editor Rich Lowry. Mark Shields and Paul Gigot are on vacation.
|A changed presidential race|
|Tom, has the chemistry of this race really changed?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, it has. The litmus paper changed color, not just last week, but over the last three weeks. I think we can exaggerate the change that has occurred, and I think in our business we have a bad history of exaggerating. But that doesn't make the change any less real. Al Gore, in a way, has had a 16-day, uninterrupted national convention. It's the kind of thing presidential candidates probably dream about. It is now ending, and we're maybe getting back to normal. But that dominated three-weekly news cycles. I haven't seen -
MARGARET WARNER: You mean starting with the Lieberman pick.
TOM OLIPHANT: From Lieberman through about Wednesday of this week. I haven't seen a shift like that since my baby year of 1968 when Richard Nixon finally vaulted ahead for the first time. Bush, gaffes aside, we haven't really heard from yet. I don't think the country hears him right now. But in terms of the chemistry changing, absolutely, and in a major way. He is in people's living rooms right now with a fairly attentive audience willing to listen to him. And that is the biggest change of all.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it?
RICH LOWRY: Well, Gore over the last two weeks did two extremely important things. One, he solidified his base. He pulled Democrats back to him. He pulled Democrats away from Nader who have gone from 6 or 7 percent in some polls down to 2 or 3 percent or less, and pulled a lot of Democrats out of the undecided column and he also made up tons of ground with women, which is extremely important. And he did it through his convention speech. They liked a lot of the issues: College tuition, tax credits, prescription drug benefits.
But they also, I think -- I hate to say it -- liked that bodice-ripping kiss which was an extremely important symbolic statement on the vice president's part. So he's solidified his base and he has now created a huge lead among women when he was tied or behind Bush. And that's what has driven his bounce in this period.
|The story behind the numbers|
|MARGARET WARNER: How do you see what's happened inside the
numbers? It's women?
TOM OLIPHANT: Let's go a little further because I think now we can get into the area that really concerns the Bush team in Austin, as they plan their next move, and that involves Gore's ability to communicate with people who don't make a lot of money, but make some -- not particularly highly well educated but some college -- talking issues involving the financing of higher education or prescription drugs for the elderly or whatever, in a way that seems to resonate, at this point, unless there's an answer to it. And secondly, I thought before the conventions that Governor Bush had developed an extraordinary, for a Republican ability, to communicate with the elderly. And over the course of the convention period, I think Vice President Gore was able to change that perception considerably -- I think by the extent to which he went into detail on many health care Medicare prescription drug-related issues. And I think it is those internals that most concern the Bush campaign advisors. I think it explains their advertising strategy this week. It may foreshadow their strategy in the week to come. But it's that in addition to solidifying that base, he appeared to be able to go beyond it, and that's where the race becomes unstable from the perspective of Austin, Texas.
MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, this isn't new from Al Gore, a populous message and also an emphasis on specifics. Why is it working better now?
RICH LOWRY: Well, I think all year long the two characteristics that have been most important to voters is not any issue. It's character and leadership. And through that kiss, he solidified his image, characterize because there is no... not to get too graphic, but there is no possible way to starkly demonstrate that you're different than President Clinton than passionately kissing your wife in front of millions of people. And two, just the tone of his speech: This is what I believe. This is who I am, you might not like it, you might think boring, but I am going to fight. I don't care. I am going to fight. Those are words from strong leader. And we saw Gore has trailed Bush in that leadership area all year long, by huge margins. He has made up that ground, and that's because of his fighting stance.
MARGARET WARNER: But then that makes me want to switch to Bush and say, I mean poll numbers go up and down as we've just said. Why did it so quickly put Bush on the defensive?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, again, what's interesting is that there is nothing in Gore's language. I mean, this is how he came at Bradley last fall - it was the same basic idea. "Fight" was the key word there. In Governor Bush's case though, I don't think he has recognized something very basic about presidential campaigns. And that is when the conventions are over, and the general election starts, the campaign starts, the campaign is like a stage where you never know when somebody is going to hit the lights. And in the aftermath of this convention with Gore having done well, with a lot of attention focused on him, with his personality at least appealing enough so people were willing to listen to him, people looked in on Governor Bush and they couldn't hear anything. And then I don't think they've been hearing anything since he left Philadelphia.
The position of the campaign has been that this is personal, not business -- that it's about character and leadership style. That is not the conception of the campaign from the Democratic side. But in a general election at this point, people start to want more, even Ronald Reagan understood that 20 years ago and gave them more at this time. He needs to give people more.
RICH LOWRY: Well, it's interesting because the distinctions between the two campaigns are not just on substance. There's a real difference of tone and sensibility. Bush is the Zen candidate. Take it easy, take deep breaths, we'll all get along, no more fighting and bickering in Washington, just this bipartisanship peace zone we're going to enter into. And Gore is the "Fight Club" candidate. He says I'm going to bruise some people; I'm going to bruise these Republican who want to take away your clean water; I'm going to bruise these nasty corporate interests. So it will be very interesting to see which sensibilities sell better with the public.
TOM OLIPHANT: How then do you get to the kiss if...
MARGARET WARNER: But, at home we don't fight.
RICH LOWRY: He's a lover and a fighter.
TOM OLIPHANT: The pre-convention Al Gore would have probably referred to that as a risky osculation scheme.
|The pulled RNC ad|
|MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, explain what happened to
this RNC ad this week that was sent to 350 stations and then at Bush's
direction was pulled. What was that all about?
RICH LOWRY: I think this was -- the most important aspect of the story is that it gave an excuse for the media to keep up with the story line of the week, which was that the Bush campaign is in disarray; they're stumbling around. They don't know what they're doing. I don't think this tells us that there is some huge internal division in the Bush campaign. I think this was just a very specific incident. I think they agree though that eventually they're going to have to take Gore on on his character, and that will be mean running something "negative ads." This wasn't the right negative ad.
MARGARET WARNER: And just to explain -- this is an ad that showed a Gore interview from a couple of years ago and that some of the Bush campaign felt it was misleading because it suggests that it referred to the Lewinsky -
TOM OLIPHANT: It came very close to running. When you ship an ad, you're coming to the edge. And it reflected a judgment that Gore -- the assessment of Gore as a person had changed, getting back to chemistry for a second - and that if you don't affect that change-
MARGARET WARNER: Quickly.
TOM OLIPHANT: -- in the opposite direction, it's going to take root. Interestingly enough, just today a third ad of the week went up for the Bush campaign, a sort of defensive sounding ad on Social Security and Medicare and prescription drugs, that reflected a late decision even to respond to Gore's ability to communicate through news coverage on some of these issues. I mean the way I was brought up, the more ads you run, the more in trouble you are.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean defensive ad?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, it's like I'm not going to cut your Social Security benefits. We will have a program that will bring prescription drug coverage to all seniors. It is a kind of response, without directly saying so.
|Will Gore's populism work?|
|RICH LOWRY: Let me go back to the Gore populism. I do think
in the short-term it has helped him with his image but in the long-term
I can't believe it's a winner for him because this kind of rhetoric runs
directly counter to the most important demographic change in this country,
which is the rise of mass investment. And most people in this country
aren't fearful and worried about powerful corporate interests. They own
pieces of powerful corporate interests, whether they're pharmaceuticals
or whether they're Microsoft or whatever. So I think in the long run,
this is a loser message for Gore, and we saw an indication of it this
week where he had Joe Lieberman asked by the Wall Street Journal,
so are you guys anti-business? He says, no, no, no, this is just rhetorical
flourishes and rhetorical excesses. And that was a stumble on the part
of the Gore campaign that didn't get highlighted enough by the press.
MARGARET WARNER: There are even some Democrats, aren't there, who are worried that he is abandoning the centrist Clinton message?
TOM OLIPHANT: Except for a factual point. I don't share the common view that this is populist. I don't think it meets the historical definition or description of it. I think it's much more like what came a couple of decades after that that we called progressivism, which is more in the nature of reform that counterbalances special-interest power in the country. You can find by a two to one margin Americans feeling that special interests run the government. And so to that extent, the extent that he is more like a Teddy Roosevelt or a Hiram Johnson of California or even a Woodrow Wilson, domestically, Gore appears to a middle-class perspective rather than a populist one.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thanks.