Expect the mother of all negative campaigns in the 2000 presidential
Talking Politics by Seth Gitell
One thing is certain about the upcoming general election for president: it will
be ugly. Democratic and Republican operatives are already preparing hit
packages on their opponents. Al Gore will be the leading perpetrator, but the
top Republican candidates and the Democratic challenger will have to mix it up
if they are to overcome the vice-president.
The benefits of such tactics have already become apparent. In the waning weeks
of 1999, Gore's campaign received a boost when it went negative against
Democratic challenger Bill Bradley. Gore and his allies have made reference to
Bradley's "risky" medical plan and his support of "risky" school vouchers. Gore
even stated in a debate that Bradley "opposed our participation in Bosnia,"
and backed up the claim by handing out newspaper articles -- when, according to
columnist Robert Novak, those articles actually show Bradley criticizing
Clinton for not doing enough to halt Serbian aggression.
And that's just Bradley, whose past in the Senate and the NBA doesn't suggest
he has anything to hide. Think what Gore could do against Texas governor George
W. Bush, whose past is slightly more checkered -- or against Senator John
McCain, who was once implicated in a banking scandal.
During the eight years since Clinton's first presidential run, Democrats have
honed a smooth attack-and-response team. This machine -- organized by James
Carville in the winter of 1991-'92 -- is able to knock down negative assertions
and carefully place damaging information about opponents into the media food
chain. At a time when Gore is running out of money, (see "Going for Broke,"
News and Features, December 17, 1999), this network of Democratic supporters
will be his best tool.
"While nobody has a copyright on rapid response, the Democrats have obviously
perfected it by gaining so much hard-core experience," says one Democratic
insider. "The Republicans have learned how to dish it out, but no one knows how
to respond the way the Democrats do. Both sides will be able to dish it out,
but only one side will be able to respond to it."
What, exactly, are the Democrats preparing? The official party line, courtesy
of the Democratic National Committee's press secretary, is this: "We are going
to work very hard so people understand differences between the two parties and
understand that the Republican Party doesn't care about issues like health
care, guns, and education and has been silent about finding solutions for these
issues." Patricia Ewing, the senior adviser to the chair of the Democratic
National Committee, will help coordinate the research by organizing message,
research, and press departments within the party apparatus.
A top Democratic strategist says the effort, which is built around the
assumption that Bush will be the GOP nominee, will focus on exposing the
differences between the rhetoric and the reality of Bush's "compassionate
conservatism." A central strategy of the Bush campaign is to boast about what a
great state Texas is. But Democrats are planning to do to Bush what Bush's
father did to former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988
campaign: use his home state against him. People are already saying that the
plight of children in the Lone Star State may be Bush's Boston Harbor. "Texas
is one of the worst places in America to raise your children, and women -- who
will decide this election -- are going to run away from him in droves," says
the Democratic strategist. "Kids on a Houston track team have to check the smog
alert before they run on the track. Women aren't going to like that."
Steve Grossman, former chairman of the DNC, puts it this way: "George W. Bush
has attempted to create a certain amount of mythology around himself -- that he
is a centrist mainstream leader. It is my obligation, and the obligation of
other people who speak, to continue to peel back layers of the onion to expose
the core of Bush's ideology, which I continue to believe is outside of the
values of centrist, mainstream voters."
The information put out there, Grossman adds, will be "timely, accurate, and
relevant." Says Gore supporter Kiki Moore: "The real benefit here is there is a
rapid-response machine that Democrats have learned as a tool, but that wouldn't
have any effect unless they had the substance on the issues to back it up."
In fact, Democratic operatives point out, many of the arguments the party is
developing work for both Gore and Bradley, even though they were prepared
specifically with Gore in mind. Both Gore and Bradley have talked about core
Democratic issues such as health care and Social Security during the primary
debates -- and none of the Republicans even mentioned these topics.
But conservatives fear the attacks will not be limited to policy issues. Many
on the right and left note that Bush still hasn't addressed questions about his
personal life -- questions that could come back to haunt him during an ugly
presidential campaign. The Gore team could be readying harsher personal attacks
against Bush, says Larry Klayman, the chairman of Judicial Watch, who describes
his organization as "nonpartisan" ("we do not take actions which may affect
national or local elections") but has brought numerous lawsuits against the
Clinton White House. "We believe it likely that the White House does have a
file on George W. Bush and that such a file would likely be used in violation
of the Privacy Act given our past experience in the Filegate lawsuit," Klayman
said in a statement faxed to the Phoenix.
For Gore, going ugly is a good strategy. His unfavorable ratings hover in the
40s, which would be deadly for most politicians. But Gore's strategists know
that if he can energize his base and make the campaign so distasteful that most
other Americans tune out, he can win the election. The Democratic core -- trade
unionists, government workers, African-Americans -- will come out to vote
against the Republicans. And if Gore makes Bush look really bad, suburban
independents and other swing voters may stay home.
"Gore's going to run a very ruthless, nasty, negative campaign. He's going to
destroy anybody that gets in his way," says Chris Matthews, host of CNBC's
Hardball. "He's going to get the usual Democratic suspects -- the
unions, the women, the gay groups, the teachers' union. [Then] he's going to
nail Bush as some sort of danger. `Bush is going to hemorrhage the economy.'
`Bush is a danger.' Gore does not want this to be a popularity contest."
Some on the right, still shell-shocked about Clinton's having survived the
Monica Lewinsky scandal, are getting anxious. As well they should be. To date,
the Bush campaign has been strictly second-rate. First there was the amateurish
whispering campaign implying that John McCain was unfit to serve as president
because of psychological damage inflicted during his time in Vietnamese
prisoner-of-war camps. Then there was the Andy Hiller foreign-policy pop-quiz
fiasco. Since then, the Bush camp has shown an embarrassing lack of
coordination and organization -- qualities that are crucial in forging a
rapid-response team. Can you imagine Gore getting sucked into an Andy Hiller
ambush? Even if he ever did stumble into a trap like that, he'd probably be
able to answer the questions. Bush's bunch still has not been able to recover
from the Hiller story, which has become a staple of late-night-talk-show
Jonah Goldberg, who emerged as a vocal Clinton critic during the Lewinsky
scandal, says the Republicans will have to smarten up in order to win the
election. "If Gore really does run out of money, they're not as dumb as
Republicans were in 1996. They're going to say [Bush's huge campaign war chest
is] a scandal," says Goldberg, whose mother, Lucianne Goldberg, is the one who
urged Linda Tripp to record her telephone conversations with Lewinsky. "The
Democrats are going to holler how this shows Bush is corrupt. [They'll say]
this shows the Republican Party is just a Trojan horse for corporate
If the Republicans allow this to happen, they'll be in trouble. "During the
impeachment, the Republicans were so cowardly about it," Goldberg says. "They
didn't put their faces out there very much. That's one reason I did so much
television. This time I think they'll get their own talking heads out there."
Although much of the Democrats' focus is on Bush, McCain is not immune from
these kinds of attacks either. In a Gore-McCain match-up, the vice-president's
cronies would bring up everything from McCain's involvement in the Keating
banking scandal to his divorce from his first wife. No matter that McCain's
shame over his involvement with the failed S&L has led him to embrace
campaign-finance reform, or that he has blamed himself for his failed marriage.
In some ways, however, McCain might be better able to fight back than Bush
would be. McCain is ready to seize on dozens of ways he feels the Clinton-Gore
administration has dishonored the nation. He has already lashed out at
Clinton's "feckless, photo-op" foreign policy. Bottom line? He'll be ready to
do battle if and when the time comes.
The Bush camp is prepared to go ugly as well. Officially, of course, the Bush
people are portraying themselves as angels. "I think the American people will
see through any kind of negative attack [by the Democrats] that is born out of
a lack of the ability to come up with any issues of their own," says a Bush
spokeswoman, Mindy Tucker. She adds that Bush will stick with a "positive,
But other Republicans are going much further than that. "This is going to be
really dirty," says one Washington-based conservative. "Bush is going to be
really dirty. He's going to have to be. If Republicans think they can win this
campaign being their usual white-shoe selves, they are wrong. These people will
do anything they can to remain in power. Somebody on the Republican side is
going to have to say that."
Victoria Toensing, a conservative Washington lawyer, agrees that Republicans
are going to have to be more aggressive this time: "This will only stop when
somebody is punished by it," Toensing states. "They figured out the money
part," she continues, referring to the way the Bush campaign decided early on
to decline federal matching funds and thus avoid campaign-spending caps. "Now
they'll have to figure out the other."
Conservative insiders say that one of the smartest Republicans involved in
negative-campaigning plans is Michael Collins, the upstate New York-born son of
a union organizer, who is a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Collins has been monitoring Democratic campaign events; when a New Hampshire
woman asked Gore about the allegations of Juanita Broaddrick, who has said that
Clinton raped her more than 20 years ago, Collins was on hand to take notes and
publicize the exchange, in which the vice-president claimed he'd never seen
Broaddrick's televised interview. "I've got the video and I've got the
transcript," he says. "I started talking to the reporters, and none of them
were going to be writing it. I ran my tape recorder of the debate and I made a
transcript, and we put it out to the country." Collins thinks Gore can be held
accountable for his time in the White House and that in the 2000 election,
Republicans will win the day.
"The Democratic attack machine, this ruthless, taxpayer-funded spin machine,
had its high point on the morning of the Senate vote on removing the president,
and it's been downhill from there," Collins says. "It's going to continue to be
Collins attributes the newly aggressive Republican approach to RNC chairman Jim
Nicholson, who he says conceived of many public-relations tactics that scored
points for Republicans -- such as offering tours of the Washington hotel suite
inhabited by Gore on the same day Gore launched his campaign in Tennessee.
In addition to the tactics of Collins and the RNC, Republicans think something
else is different this time. Unlike Clinton, who is personally charismatic and
has always been well liked by much of the American public, Gore is not
personally popular. Plus, the Republicans are convinced that Bush's money
advantage will save him when Gore is forced to rely on regular media coverage
of debates and other campaign events. "Pitting free media against paid
advertising is like going to a gunfight with a knife -- it doesn't worry me,"
says one Republican insider.
The 2000 election will be ugly for sure, but even a vicious campaign of
allegation and counter-allegation may not be bad for the country. The public
and private issues that divide candidates from each other are exactly the sort
of issues that should come out before an individual is elected president. Gore
has been loyal to Clinton -- and voters ought to understand that. Bush is more
conservative than his hype has portrayed him to be -- and voters ought to
understand that, too. McCain's a warrior and can go toe-to-toe with anyone, and
Bradley will have to come down from the ivory tower if he is to have a chance.
What does such a campaign mean for the nation? Better to have the debate now
than to subject the nation to it later, when one of these men is in the White
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.