Slugging Out A Win
If running for office is like being a boxer, then running for President is like going for the heavyweight title. You can dance around and take little jabs at your opponent, feeling each other out in early rounds; but eventually you must come together and exchange blows. Put plainly, politics is a pure power grab. If brokers and bankers get into what they do for the money, politicians do it all for the power. This is not a game for nice guys: if you want real power, you have to be willing to get down and fight.
Last Thursday's vice presidential debate represented what many people claim to want more of in politics. The evening was filled with civil debate about the issues, a sense of decorum and a minimum of personal attacks. Perhaps, this is what we need to gain back America's interest in politics. Perhaps this is what we need to finally bring young people into the fold of politics. Perhaps, most people would rather have a root canal than listen to 90 minutes of rehearsed answers by two candidates who have about as much inflection in their voices as Ben Stein.
This is shaping up to be one of the closest elections in recent history, yet there isn't a great deal of interest in what's going on. Americans are simply not being engaged by what they are seeing. In a world where the WWF rules the airwaves we are looking to be entertained by the debates as much as we are looking to be informed. I am not suggesting that Bush go after Gore with a metal folding chair, but I do want to see a political slugfest. Negativity is what draws us in, even if people are afraid to admit it. People will tell you that they don't like to watch car wrecks, but rubber neck traffic jams show this to be false. The press, in its attempt to shape rather than report news, has tried to make going negative a taboo. Warning flags are raised whenever someone edges towards negativity. But I challenge the candidates to ignore this threat. When asked, voters will give you the socially desirable answer, that they do not want to see negative campaigns. But the history shows that negative attacks do work.
There is hope that the gloves are finally coming off. The Gore web site now has a section on Bush blunders. Gore should keep pounding on the fact that he thinks Bush is not qualified. To continue with the boxing analogy, Gore has shown a small cut above his eye; namely his pedantic tone and truth-stretching seem to finally be catching up to him. The initial post debate spin gave Gore a slight edge. As the week went on, however, Bush was clearly the winner of the post debate spin cycle. Gore was caught lying again, and this time even the NY Times ran a piece on it. Gore was caught lying about visiting Texas disaster victims with the director of FEMA; he was never there. Gore also tried to show dominance over Bush on foreign policy and got burned in its aftermath. He scoffed at Bush's navet for suggesting that the Russians should and will play an important role in stabilizing Yugoslavia. In fact, the Clinton administration endorsed the same policy, and it seems to be working. If Bush's campaign is smart they will pound away at this cut until it is such a major gash that Gore must go on the defensive to protect.
The way to win this election is to stay on message while brutally attacking the competitor so that he has to spend time answering your attacks. Bush needs to get back on the message he had coming out of the convention, "they have not led we will," and back it with the compassionate conservative charisma that he carried early on. The RNC's soft money war chest should supplement this message with intense attacks on Gore as "the serial exaggerator." Gore should have walked away with this election because of the economy. Continuing the past eight years of prosperity must be his message; meanwhile he must also attack Bush's preparedness for the job. What we really want and need are some memorable attack ads in this campaign. There hasn't been anything reminiscent of the good old days of attack advertising, of Dukakis riding around in a tank, of Willie Horton, of Slick Willie, or even a girl pulling petals off a daisy coupled with a countdown to a nuclear apocalypse. I can't think of one ad I've seen that will be memorable a few elections from now.
In the build up for the first round of the debates, Bush was like Rocky the first time he fought Apollo Creed. Expectations were low for Bush, and many of us hoped he could just go the distance with Gore. But unlike in Rocky, it never amounted to a slugfest, and they fought to an uneventful draw. Now it's Rocky II, Gore the champ debater is vulnerable, Bush has a chance to win. Don't expect a Mike Tyson knock out punch that will turn the race one way or another. This is the closest race in 20 or maybe even 40 years. It's going to be won inch by inch, and the candidate who lands the most shots to the body and withstands the most punishment will ultimately win.