The Washington Times

If you look back over the serious analytical coverage of the presidential campaign this year, what you will mainly see is a string of commentary (including in this space) about Al Gore’s failure to capitalize on what looked like a winning hand.

This Gore-centric view of the election is hardly inappropriate. After all, Mr. Gore has been vice president of the United States longer than George W. Bush has been a national figure at all. And Mr. Gore got to make his run in unprecedented conditions of peace and prosperity, with his party establishment’s early, united backing.

True, there has been a downside as well as an upside to being Bill Clinton’s vice president. But Mr. Gore has had a long time to think about little else but how to get past this issue, and his party’s best political minds have been ready to help. So what’s his problem?

But the obsessive focus on Mr. Gore has caused another important aspect of this presidential contest to go underappreciated: That’s the fact that George W. Bush has run a pretty good campaign. At a variety of points and in a variety of ways, Mr. Bush has taken measures that have made Mr. Gore’s task harder.

Let’s start with the way in which he united the GOP behind his candidacy. Pat Buchanan has gone nowhere as an independent candidate this year thanks in no small part to the unswerving support of the conservative base of the GOP for Mr. Bush. At the same time, Mr. Bush has been no less successful in keeping the party’s less ideological elements in his campaign. Republican voters (as opposed to independents) attracted to John McCain saw a charismatic candidate who they felt would have a better chance against Mr. Gore. But now that Mr. Bush has shown he is up to the task of the general election, that worry is moot. In addition, the Bush campaign’s issue positions and the GOP party platform are likewise consensus documents within the party – perfectly mainstream GOP thinking.

Now, this unity has been a great boon for Mr. Bush. But it also constituted an opportunity for Mr. Gore. Mr. Bush, after all, comes from the same state that is home to Rep. Dick Armey, the House majority leader, and Rep. Tom Delay, the whip, both of whom were early Bush supporters. Thanks to the brutal political combat in Washington since 1995, many non-ideological voters have become wary of the hard-edged conservatism they came to associate with the House Republican leadership and its erstwhile talk of “revolution.” Moreover, when the going got tough against Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush needed to shore up his conservative support, he chose to do so at archconservative Bob Jones University, where there was even a ban on interracial dating. Couldn’t Mr. Gore portray Mr. Bush as of a piece with his known right-wing associates?

The Bush campaign did at least two things that made that Mr. Gore’s task harder. First, he has been at pains for more than a year to portray himself as a different sort of conservative. What began as a label, “compassionate conservative,” became a routine Bush emphasis on certain softer issues, pre-eminently education. By all accounts, this consistency in message has made the task of painting him as an extremist much more difficult.

Second, Mr. Bush has had nothing to do with the Republican Congress. He has refrained from presenting himself as a partywide standard-bearer – the face of a united Republican effort to run the government. Instead, he has spoken incessantly about his experience in getting Democrats and Republicans to work together. In Mr. Bush’s rhetoric, there is no Republican “us” against a Democratic “them.” That therefore makes it harder for Mr. Gore to situate Mr. Bush in close proximity to conservative members of Congress. It also makes it harder, by the anonymously quoted account of Mr. Gore’s own campaign officials, to use the Republican Congress as a foil without getting tagged as engaging in the partisan bickering Mr. Bush has denounced.

Finally, about this golden economy: The truth is that polls have long been distinctly ambivalent about who deserves credit for it. Rather than dispute the occasionally extravagant claims the Clinton administration has made about paternity, Mr. Bush changed the subject. His campaign has taken the economy as a given and talked about the opportunities “squandered” and Mr. Bush’s ability to seize them. With this bit of jujitsu, Mr. Bush sought to change what might have been a referendum on the status quo – are you better off now than you were eight years ago? – into an election about change. And Mr. Gore, perhaps out of overweening concern for his detachment from Mr. Clinton, perhaps out of the sincere belief that his policy proposals for the future would be more popular with voters, agreed to fight it out on that ground.

None of Mr. Bush’s moves was, in principle, unanswerable by Mr. Gore. But undeniably, they made the puzzle of election 2000 harder for the vice president to crack.