The Boston Phoenix
September 7 - 14, 2000

[Features]

McCain lite

The key to Gore's success? John McCain. Bush has failed to capitalize on McCain's blueprint for success with swing voters -- so Gore co-opted the issues.

by Seth Gitell

Nearly one week after Labor Day -- the unofficial start of the presidential campaign -- Democratic candidate Al Gore has a solid lead in the polls over GOP challenger George W. Bush. The secret to Gore's success? Arizona senator John McCain.

Officially, of course, McCain is supporting Bush. But by running a strong campaign against Bush in the primaries, McCain provided a blueprint for success with the much-talked-about independent swing voters. These voters -- who number around one million -- are seen as the key to victory in November's election. With his speech at the Democratic convention and throughout his campaign since then, Gore has courted them by co-opting the key elements of McCain's message: railing against powerful political interests, fighting for "working families," and promoting broader "American values" that speak to the center of the electorate. And it's working. Gore went into the Democratic convention 10 points behind Bush in most national polls. His numbers bounced back immediately after the convention and, to the surprise of pundits and pollsters, have remained strong.

Bush, meanwhile, has completely ceded the ground defined by McCain

in the primaries. The Republican convention was an orgy of corporate largesse -- half-a-million-dollar parties, a Republican candy-eating fest (the "Death by Chocolate Social"), private fishing trips for big donors with House Speaker Dennis Hastert. With his vice-presidential pick, Dick Cheney, Bush formed the first double oil-tycoon ticket in history. And although he calls himself the "Reformer with Results," we haven't seen much from Bush on reform these days. He has yet to utter a syllable about campaign-finance reform -- except to make fun of Gore's visit to a Buddhist temple (more on that later). What's more, when Bush puts Cheney forward to act as his surrogate, all the focus is on the millions of dollars in stock options that Cheney stands to earn during the next presidential term. The problem is so acute that it was the focus of a devastating column by conservative columnist Robert Novak on August 31, in addition to articles by other influential conservatives, such as Robert George and Ramesh Ponnuru on NationalReview.com.

The bottom line? In rejecting McCain's message, Bush has squandered his political lead and is now stuck in a Dukakis-like spiral. This leaves us with three questions to keep in mind between now and November 7. Can Bush recover? Will Gore keep his advantage? And what, if anything, does this mean for John McCain?

Gore has completely taken McCain's message," says Ken Weinstein, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Hudson Institute in Washington. "Gore's message is, at heart, of the people versus the powerful. This was McCain's message: `let's take on the special interests and send them home.' "

Consider this passage from Gore's convention acceptance speech: "I know one thing about the job of the president. It is the only job in the Constitution that is charged with the responsibility of fighting for all the people -- not just the people of one state, or one district, not just the wealthy or the powerful -- all the people, especially those who need a voice, those who need a champion, those who need to be lifted up so they are never left behind. . . . If you entrust me with the presidency, I will fight for you."

It's strikingly similar to McCain's announcement speech on September 27, 1999, in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he outlined the "new patriotic challenge": "It is a fight to take our government back from the powerbrokers and special interests, and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve. If we are to meet the challenges of our time, we must take the corrupting influence of special-interest money out of politics."

Gore has even adopted the calling card of the McCain presidential effort -- campaign-finance reform. "If you entrust me with the presidency, I will put democracy back in your hands, and get all the special-interest money, all of it, out of our democracy, by enacting campaign-finance reform," Gore said during his convention speech. "I feel so strongly about this, I promise you that campaign-finance reform will be the very first bill that Joe Lieberman and I send to the United States Congress."

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell@phx.com.


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