Why Bush and Gore's Phony Non-War Won't Last

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I once knew a Jekyll-and-Hyde alcoholic who, when sober, might walk for months in the sunshine of his good intentions and sanctimony, a paragon, one of the most respected citizens in town. But inevitably, one day, the thirst would descend upon him and he would revert to the piggy-eyed, spittle-spraying ranter we knew. He always returned to his dark side.

I think of him as I read that both Democrats and Republicans look forward to the coming presidential campaign with what seems a high-minded determination to avoid their own dark side. The Bush campaign has ordained, for example, that the GOP convention starting in Philadelphia at the end of July is to be upbeat and positive. Normally, the second night of the convention is devoted to attacking the Democratic candidate. Not this time. All four nights are to be given over to celebrating the compassionate conservative, George W. Bush. Eliminate the negative.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have begun a 10-week television advertising campaign — financed by $25 million in soft money — to "redefine" Al Gore, to bathe him in the aura of American success in the last seven years.

It is possible the 2000 campaign will remain basically constructive. But I doubt it, for these reasons:

  • Such speak-no-evil forbearance goes against political nature. The substantive issues — taxes, social security, health care — are difficult to dramatize. Just as John Milton's Satan is a more interesting character than Milton's God, so a negative campaign inherently has more vividness and fire than a positive one.

  • This promises to be a close race. Negative campaigning works — and may come to seem the only effective way to try to win the undecided voters, the McCain types who will be decisive. Both candidates know how to play rough, and both of them, I suspect, are persuaded that you cannot win without ruthlessness. The Marquis of Queensberry is for losers. George W. Bush imitates his father in almost all things; in 1988 Bush the elder hit Michael Dukakis with a number of rabbit punches — the Willie Horton business, for example.

  • Both candidates this year are highly vulnerable to attack. The temptation to firebomb in those areas of vulnerability will, I suspect, be too great to resist. What areas? In the case of George W. Bush: abortion, capital punishment, gun control — all fairly passionate and motivating issues — and on top of those, what might be called the Doofus Dismissal: the persistent rap that he is not smart enough to be president. The first three questions will invite increasingly vicious us-versus-them rhetoric; the last will eat away at Bush by insinuation and late-night comedy.

    In Gore's case, the areas of vulnerability (outside the obvious conservative distaste for his big government mentality, his stand on abortion and so on) will be his personal character — there will be elaborate efforts to answer the question, What exactly is wrong with Al Gore? — and the truth or untruth (or half-truth) of things he has said in the past.

    The sunny interlude of the moment is phony war before the real shooting starts.

    But we should not be squeamish. In my next column, I will discuss a presidential campaign much dirtier than this one promises to be — a race that, after all the mud had been slung, produced a very good president.

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