The Boston Phoenix November 8, 2000


Gridlock and its discontents

It's fitting that our long national whine ends in Florida - the home state of Elián fanatics, suburban sprawl, rednecks, self-obsessed geezers, and overseas military personnel who vote by absentee ballot

by Seth Gitell

You reap what you sow. The millions of uninformed voters, undecided until the end, have elected a president (we just don't know who yet) without a mandate, a president who will be forced to fight this election long after the ballots have been recounted.

You can't blame party activists for this ugly spectacle. Both the Democrats and the Republicans voted in lockstep for their respective candidates: in the end, these voters knew that party labels matter. The vast swath of undecided voters - those who whined on national television that they couldn't make out the difference between the two candidates' plans for Social Security - have given us this: an election that won't be decided for days, with the very real possibility that Bush could win the electoral vote with Gore capturing the popular vote (by about a quarter-million votes).

But don't let this last blast of adrenaline fool you. Despite the last-minute, edge-of-your-seat excitement, the reality is that Campaign 2000 sucked, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. It will be days before we know who's won, and there'll be weeks of post-election recriminations after that. Already there is talk of litigation over 3500 disputed votes in Palm Beach. The losing party will strive to strip the winner's legitimacy. Either way, there will be no mandate. In other words, the winner will spend his first year in office defending his victory.

Even though many people, including me, have compared the 2000 election to the Kennedy-Nixon nail-biter of 1960, the true comparison is with the stultifying contests of the late 19th century - contests that produced such do-nothing presidents as Rutherford B. Hayes (himself the product of a disputed election) and Benjamin Harrison (a president's grandson who won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote). For that, nearly everyone has been pinning blame on the candidates, Governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore. But that's not accurate. Let's put the blame where it belongs: on the lazy voting public.

Let's face it - uninformed and undecided voters drove the battle plans of each campaign. Karl Rove of Team Bush and Bob Shrum of Team Gore built their campaigns around voters who were incapable of picking up on the subtleties of arguments about Bush's tax plan or Gore's attempts at medical reform. These were the people - the majority of voters - who viewed the election as Christmas in November: tax cuts, prescription-drug subsidies, increased Social Security benefits, tuition tax credits, school vouchers, universal pre-school programs, more money for teachers. Since September, the Bush campaign has kept ruthlessly on message, declining interviews with journalists in favor of lighthearted appearances on entertainment shows like Letterman.

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when I actually looked forward to covering the presidential election. I used to work in Washington, where I pounded out stories about American foreign policy and the Middle East while other reporters raced around town chasing after Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. After delving into the extraordinary foreign-policy failings of the Clinton White House - the broken promises ("We have a war on terrorism"), the winks (giving the green light to trade with Iran while officially forbidding it), and the nods (providing billions in aid to Russia as it spread nuclear technology around the globe) - I hoped that the next election season would put some of these issues on the table.

I thought that Campaign 2000 would surely entail a thorough examination of all the challenges that would face our next president - in foreign policy and elsewhere. I hoped that the Republican candidate would enumerate the domestic and international failings of the Clinton administration. And Gore, the Democratic candidate, would be forced to defend them, or to alter his own position. Little did I realize that Gore's most remarkable move on that score would be to break with Clinton over the Elián González affair. With the fate of the election resting on Florida, that move doesn't look so dumb now. Campaign 2000 will be remembered - and studied by political strategists for years to come - for the way both campaigns managed to avoid substantive discussion of the issues. Sure, there were dust-ups over Social Security and taxes. But these pseudo-mathematical "discussions," particularly during the debates, neutralized any hope of a national discourse. How could the public - or anyone - figure out who was right?

Of course, that was the point. Both candidates seemed to have taken Obfuscation 101 from Professor Bill Clinton. Clinton fooled a willing public - on Middle East peace talks, on welfare reform, on his own battle against impeachment - by taking advantage of the fact that people have short memories. When partisans of either side tried to make their case in the face of a strong opposing statement, they almost always seemed overly combative - and as annoying as gnats. Political writer Joe Klein quoted a Gore aide saying as much in the November 6 issue of the New Yorker: "[P]eople don't respond to that. . . . The research showed they wanted the election to be about the future, not the past."

How ironic, then, that the only adrenaline rush of the entire campaign was provided by the revelation of Bush's decades-old drunken-driving arrest. It wasn't a serious "issue" by anyone's standard, but it turned out to be the only thing that got the country talking. Of course, the Bush DUI story - which the Texas governor handled in a Clintonesque fashion - represented the culmination of a decade of destructive personal politics.

Another reason Campaign 2000 blew? The candidates pursued the presidency the same way General Mills markets a new breakfast cereal: figure out what the people want and tell them what they want to hear. Both parties spoon-fed focus-group-tested promises to demographic niche groups. The Democrats focused on specific programs that appealed to large voting blocs - Social Security, prescription drugs, and Medicare. And the Republicans dressed up their candidate in cheap packaging: "compassionate conservatism." Both sides strove not to say anything more than what was absolutely necessary.

Each candidate knew he could depend on his party's base - with a little more trouble for Gore, who faced a challenge on the left from Nader. That meant that uncommitted voters would decide - and did decide - the election. As a result, both the Democratic and the Republican campaigns explicitly targeted voters in Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri, as well as in Florida. If you didn't live in one of these states, you might have been able to get almost through the fall without realizing it was a presidential-election year. Think about it. How many campaign bumper stickers or lawn signs has anyone seen in these parts?

Like any successful marketing push, the campaigns worked desperately not to offend anyone. The Bush people got off to a great start by doing absolutely nothing. For months following his successful gubernatorial re-election bid in November 1998, when national GOP activists began talking about Bush as presidential timber, he remained holed up at the governor's mansion in Austin. Party activists, policy advisers, and major campaign donors trekked down to Texas to meet with "the governor" (as his aides never tired of calling him in a weak attempt to give stature to a shallow man). Rove, the campaign guru, devised the plan based on William McKinley's 1896 "front porch" strategy. He also crafted the governor's message, Bush would position himself as a leader - after all, he had led one of America's largest states - who could attract a diverse array of voters to the GOP. Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, allowed tidbits of these meetings to leak out, but Bush himself remained silent.

Gore, meanwhile, stumbled. He couldn't seem to stay on message - or to find one in the first place. Before moving his campaign to Nashville, Gore was still in strictly Beta Male mode. He traveled around the country promoting a "livability agenda" that focused on sprawl and suburban-planning issues. When that didn't catch on with the public, Gore moved into populist mode.

The bottom line? Both candidates were lacking in a certain . . . snap, crackle, and pop. As someone who followed their moves closely, I was convinced that the public would see right through them, as I did. And I found it hard to believe they'd be successful.

But they were. And we can thank the voters for that. Just when it looked as if things might get interesting - in January and February, when Republican senator John McCain and former Democratic senator Bill Bradley were waging their campaigns of substance - voters allowed themselves to be manipulated.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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