While we wait to see if Team Bush can stop Al Gore from stealing the election, a few post-mortem thoughts on the Bush campaign’s final days and a look at some national voter trends may prove helpful in charting a political course for a Bush presidency.
The last week of the campaign was not good. While Bush aides boasted during the final days of a 5-point victory lead, exit polls on Election Night showed that late undecideds broke 3 to 1 for Al Gore. This, by itself, is highly unusual, as last-minute deciders usually break against the incumbent who, in this case, was Gore.
Why 3 to 1 against Bush? Twenty-five percent decided the DUI arrest was a significant factor. Therein lies the story.
The Bush explanation that he never publicly acknowledged this arrest in order to shield his daughters just didn’t fly. And while the Karen Hughes argument that the DUI issue was merely a Democratic dirty trick did seem to work in the mainstream media, the voting public still was not satisfied.
It is doubtful that people held something that happened 25 years ago against the Texan, particularly in light of his personal and spiritual transformation to sobriety. But what did seem to matter was the Clintonesqueness in the Texan’s explanation. There was no real thorough-going discussion by Bush. He may well have been completely sincere in stating his parental responsibility toward his daughters. That is something, of course, only he (and presumably wife Laura) can determine. But, in political terms, it was insufficient and unsatisfying to the public on the eve of a presidential election.
In terms of a future Bush presidency, Clintonesque doesn’t work. Even hinting at Clintonesque doesn’t work. Anything that even remotely suggests “what the meaning of ‘is’ is” just doesn’t work in contemporary American political life.
Bush would have been much better off taking a 30-minute paid television ad to address the nation and clear the matter up. He is certainly an honest man with enormous integrity. But the DUI saga cut into those positive personality traits just enough to turn late deciders against him. Perhaps a national TV interview with someone like Tim Russert might have been helpful. But as it turned out, his failure to fully cover the issue was quite damaging in the last moments of the campaign.
So also was his failure to fully guarantee Social Security benefits and explain the simple arithmetic concerning $2.4 trillion of Social Security surpluses with $1 trillion allocated to personal-retirement accounts. Gore relentlessly attacked Bush on Social Security in the final days of the campaign — typical old Democrat fear-mongering. But Bush never truly told the public that he would guarantee current recipients their full benefit package as he did, for example, earlier in the campaign on Medicare.
Republican reform plans for these entitlements must always make clear that those who expect to get benefits under current law will in fact get them. This is standard stock, but Bush really didn’t cover it properly. Norman Schwarzkopf made the benefits pledge in the last days in Florida, but the general wasn’t running for president. It was Bush who had to definitively make a case. Unfortunately he didn’t.
Exit polls showed that a 57% majority supported private investment of Social Security funds, and those voters backed Bush by more than 2 to 1. However, of the 14 % of voters who said Social Security mattered most (3rd most important issue), 59% went for Gore versus 39% for Bush. So the issue hurt him.
I’m sure that the premature declaration of a Gore victory in Florida by television broadcasters before the Panhandle polls closed, not to speak of the impact in states west of Florida, discouraged would-be Bush voters and hurt the Bush effort. But the media isn’t solely to blame for the razor-thin margin of this election. If the Texan had handled the DUI and Social Security issues better, I believe he would have won by several percentage points — which in today’s terms would look like a huge landslide.
STAY TUNED: Tomorrow we’ll investigate how these election-eve miscues should not obscure the fact that, in many ways, Bush ran a brilliant campaign.