Politics & Policy

Debunking The Lieber-Surge

If W. stays on message, the Gore-Lieberman bounce won't matter.

With all the commentary this week written about the Joseph Lieberman veep appointment, the train may have left the station as far as fresh insights are concerned. But I still can’t risk the temptation to add a couple of thoughts that have been turning over in my mind.

This morning’s Rasmussen poll shows Bush with a 47-35 lead over Gore. I suppose we now have to say Bush-Cheney leads Gore-Lieberman by 12 points. That’s a 7-percentage-point drop from Bush’s peak, but still a hefty lead. Rasmussen’s survey is based on interviews with 2,250 likely voters. So I give it credence. Also, in six of the past seven presidential elections, the poll leader between conventions emerged as the eventual winner. Only Dukakis in 1988 lost his lead. But Bush is no Dukakis.

Here’s another point. Voters come this November will decide their preference on the basis of the top of the ticket. That’s the way this presidential game has always worked. Dick Cheney had a good day in the sun, as has Joe Lieberman. But it will be Bush versus Gore in the minds of the voters. That’s the long and short of it.

Another point. I think Al Gore and Joe Lieberman have done George Bush a favor. Why? Because the Lieberman designation does in fact partly inoculate Gore from Bill Clinton’s moral shortcomings. Further, I still think it is doubtful that voters will link Gore to Clinton’s defects. I felt this way the night of Dick Cheney’s convention speech a week ago Wednesday. He was the first to really argue that the GOP will be running against Clinton-Gore. George Bush picked up on this in his speech, and both of those guys inflicted huge damage on Gore.

But the final result of all that was not to destroy Gore, but instead to prompt Gore to make a clever choice with Lieberman.

Now, I always get antsy when Republicans try to run on the character issue. Self-righteous moral indignation doesn’t usually work in politics — at least not nowadays. Recall that in 1992 Papa Bush made much of the fact that he was a World War II hero who ran a good Persian Gulf War nearly fifty years later. Therefore, he had character. And, of course, the Republicans played it up over Clinton’s draft dodging during Vietnam.

Trouble was, Bush Sr. didn’t have an economic growth policy to fight the recession. Nor did he have much in the way of domestic policies. So Clinton took the character hits but responded with, “It’s the economy stupid,” and won easily.

Now remember 1996. Bob Dole ran as a card-carrying member of the World War II, GI generation — later memorialized by Tom Brokaw’s best-selling books. Again, the Republicans showered Clinton over his marital infidelities, and railed on over the character issue. But it didn’t work. Dole had a tax-cut plan that no one believed because he himself had a three-decade record of raising taxes. Not even Jack Kemp, who was a very popular figure, could inoculate Dole over his lack of an economic growth vision. So Clinton again won easily.

As I listened to the Cheney and Bush speeches last week, these thoughts were rattling around my head. If the GOP tries to make character an issue once again, they might just snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The basic point here is that George W. can win big as long as he remains focused on the key issues. Bush has the best policy-message content of any Republican since Reagan in 1980. Marginal tax-rate reduction, personal accounts for Social Security, vouchers and school choice for education, pro-market health care competition and choice, faith and family, and rebuilding America’s defense — these are solid issues that are not only polling well, they are being well explained and communicated to the public.

Just as Reagan did, Bush is taking risks with his policies. And it is exactly those risks that the Internet-economy, technology-generation, investor-class public admires.

I think the reason Bush is still ahead in the polls is because right after the convention he went barnstorming with Dick Cheney on a railroad whistle-stop tour in the Midwest that stayed on message. This is exactly the right stuff.

Al Gore just doesn’t get it as he trashes tax cuts for the rich, blasts big business, and defends the status-quo, teacher’s-union monopoly of public education. And even Joe Lieberman has already backpedaled away from education, vouchers, and personal retirement accounts — therefore suggesting that while, yes, he’s an upstanding moral citizen, he is starting to sound like a typical Northeastern Democratic liberal.

Bush will have more work to do as the Democratic convention gets ready to attack him on his tax-cuts and his private investment accounts for Social Security. And, of course, Gore will have a lot to say about the economic prosperity. But Karl Rove and Co. are already making the necessary preparations. They have contacted Jack Kemp to head up a committee of famous economists — including Nobelists Robert Mundell and Milton Friedman — to defend Bush’s policies.

In recent months, Bush himself has been rehearsing for the campaign debates, with New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg as a stand-in for Gore. All this is good.

So I remain optimistic about W.’s election prospects. But the very key point is that whatever the media may say, presidential elections are big-picture affairs that compare and contrast the vision of the combatants. It’s not about process, or who has the better advance teams, or speaking styles, or charisma, or debating points, or — usually — even character, it’s about economic- and foreign-policy vision for America’s future. Reagan had the right vision in 1980, and that’s why he won. Bush has the right vision in 2000 — and if he sticks with it, that’s why he will win too.

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