The Washington Times
For one brief moment in the summer four years ago, Republicans were happy. The moment came just as they met for their convention in San Diego, when Bob Dole announced that Jack Kemp would be his running mate. The surprising choice united the party, as intended, and produced a short-lived emotional GOP high in which it became possible to imagine beating Bill Clinton.
This was a delusion, of course. But the moment stood in sharp relief to what came before and what would come afterward. In the primaries, Mr. Dole had looked old and vulnerable, requiring the all-out efforts of supporters to prop him up through South Carolina, when he sealed his nomination at last. Then, he was out of money, unable to respond as the Clinton campaign, unburdened by primary opposition and flush with cash from federal matching funds (as well as some less savory sources), hammered away at the “Dole-Gingrich” party.
The GOP moment of hope was brief. The generally acerbic, ironic and taciturn Mr. Dole delivered a convention speech, written by novelist Mark Helprin, that was a classic case of misconceived eloquence. Even the candidate seemed puzzled by the soaring paean he was delivering to America’s better days. After the convention, Mr. Dole, well, took a vacation. Mr. Kemp went on to give a dreadful, ill-prepared performance in debate against Al Gore, and Mr. Dole himself looked hopeless next to the facile Mr. Clinton. The only consolation for Republicans, apart from the one brief shining moment in San Diego, was that the election was not the double-digit blowout the polls predicted.
If the 1996 GOP convention was a bright spot amid the gloom, the problem Republicans are having in 2000 is that their diligent search for a cloud in the sunny sky has turned up nothing so far. They are, by now, supremely confident that George W. Bush will be elected president.
This is not a new conviction. More than two years ago, the party establishment – ranging from elected officials to party operatives to conservative activists to donors – decided that Mr. Bush was their best shot in 2000. The result was an unprecedented unified effort to secure him the nomination. He might as well have been an incumbent president. The only campaigns that rose against him were explicitly insurgent. Other would-be mainstream candidates either never materialized or quickly dropped out once they realized they had no chance (Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle).
Only at two points did the party establishment harbor doubts: First, at Mr. Bush’s public debut, when it became apparent that his debating and speaking skills hardly matched the advanced billing, which promised the Terminator. Second was the unanticipated surge of John McCain. The establishment never lost faith in the ability to beat Mr. McCain back. (Had it done so to any significant degree, we would have seen, for example, $1,000 Bush donors sending $1,000 checks to Mr. McCain also.) But some worried about how damaging Mr. Bush’s right turn to shore up his conservative base would be with the more moderate voters who will decide the election.
Neither of these doubts came to much. Mr. Bush may not have improved a lot as a speaker this year, but Republicans have consoled themselves by telling each other that, actually, his halting delivery has a political rationale: People think it’s genuine (unlike a certain Democratic vice president). As for the political effects of a clumsily executed rightward turn, while Al Gore drew nearly even in head-to-head matches, how much of this was a result of Mr. Bush losing his appeal to the center is a matter of debate. In the first place, Mr. Bush got the center back, as polls showed him quickly re-establishing a lead over Mr. Gore. In the second place, how much of the decline against Mr. Gore at the time was actually the result of discomfort with Mr. Bush’s lurch to the right – as opposed to the simple fact that Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush were slamming away at each other in their final struggle for the nomination – is unclear. Again, if Mr. Bush offended people, they do not appear to remain offended.
And then there’s the man who wasn’t there: Al Gore. Republicans have been waiting and waiting for the vice president to become the formidable candidate he ought, in principle, to be. Democrats, too, have been waiting, and regularly pushing back the date by which they expect signs of progress. True, Mr. Gore didn’t catch a wind from unprecedented peace and prosperity. True, he didn’t catch a wind from putting Bill Bradley away. True, he didn’t have as good a post-primary season as Mr. Bush. But any day.
Then came the spin (encouraged by Republicans) that Mr. Bush would see little convention-time “bounce” in the polls, since he had already solidified his base and reached well beyond it. Untrue; Mr. Bush seems to be getting his bounce anyway. Next chance for Mr. Gore is his own convention. Then come the debates, where Mr. Bush will actually be the beneficiary of Mr. Gore’s reputation as a skilled and vicious debater – a reputation the GOP, not coincidentally, has done its bit to promote.
In any case, it’s getting late -late enough to say this: If Mr. Gore can turn it around and win this election, it will be a political reversal worthy of the “Comeback Kid” himself, Bill Clinton. And unlike 1996, when Republicans were psychologically prepared to lose, defeat in 2000 would leave a shell-shocked and devastated GOP.