Posted on October 12, 1992 in Washington Watch
This will be an all-or-nothing week for George Bush. His campaign has been attacking Bill Clinton and struggling since the Republican National Convention. But Bush does not seem to be gaining any ground.
Recent polls show that 80 percent of all Americans still have a negative view of the future of the country; 54 percent disapprove of the how the President has been doing his job; and the gap between Bush and front-runner Bill Clinton continues to grow. Most recent national polls show that Clinton’s lead over Bush has expanded this week to 14 percent. And this, of course, is reflected in the state-by-state polls (which I will discuss at the end of this article).
In short, the public’s mood remains quite depressed and George Bush receives the blame for the poor state of the American economy.
It is a truism in politics that when a candidate is in Bush’s position, i.e., has high negative ratings and is unable to gain ground in the polls, there is only one course open to him. So the Bush campaign has borrowed a few of the tactics from this summer’s negative campaign strategy of their friend, Britain’s Prime Minister John Major. Major came from behind against tremendous odds by stressing two lines of negative attacks against Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock: taxes and character (meaning: trust).
Major reminded British voters that Kinnock, who would have been the Prime Minister if his party won the election, was an old-style Labourite of the kind booted out of government by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Kinnock, the Conservatives suggested, would return the country to the high-tax days of the 1970s, when the top income-tax bracket was 90 percent. The tactic worked well because, in Britain, the Labour Party is believed to be the party of high taxes.
Major and the Conservative establishment (including some media) then went on to raise doubts about Kinnock’s ability to lead Britain during the next few tense years of European politics. They reminded British voters of unpopular stands taken by the Labour Party during its years in opposition, such as unilateral British nuclear disarmament. They also reminded voters of Kinnock’s internationalist leanings, implying that he would not do his best to protect the British national identity in the plans for European unity.
When the British election finally came, the Conservatives, under Major, won a surprising victory over Kinnock and Labour. In the past few months, a number of U.S. commentators have suggested that Bush might successfully employ the strategies Major used to turn the tables in Britain. The Bush campaign seems to have finally come to the same view.
The first Republican attacks on Clinton’s tax record came during the Republican National Convention, when they issued a report charging that Clinton had raised taxes 128 times as the Governor of Arkansas. The Republicans in this case were counting on a perception that Ronald Reagan used effectively in 1980 and 1984 that the Democratic Party is the party of high taxes. But the U.S. press would not go along. Most major newspapers derided the story as untrue and a distortion of Clinton’s record.
And then Clinton counter-attacked, reminding voters that Bush had broken his “no new taxes” pledge. While it is true that he will raise taxes, Clinton continues to stress that Arkansas has the second-lowest tax burden in the country and takes pride in declaring that he and Al Gore represent a new breed of Democrats who do not believe in high taxes. Bush’s negative rating in the polls seem to suggest that voters do not believe that his commitment on taxes is more believable than Clinton’s. This year, and, on this issue, Clinton seems to have escaped the fate of Kinnock, Dukakis and Mondale.
When the tax issue was not enough, and Republicans then turned to the character issue, which Bush used to such devastating effect against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Ever since the Republican convention in Houston, the Bush campaign had sought to portray Clinton as untested and untrustworthy—and that he would be unable to lead America through the challenges presented by the new world order. They also questioned Clinton’s patriotism in speeches to select audiences, but this week Bush himself brought the patriotism issue into the national spotlight during a televised interview.
The first character attack against Clinton was the Democrat’s explanation of his actions to avoid the Vietnam draft. They claim that the issue is not so much that Clinton avoided the war (although that is a subliminal charge), but that he has dodged the truth in his piecemeal explanations of his actions. They charge that he has repeatedly passed up opportunities to tell the whole story and continues to tell misleading half-truths when confronted with new evidence. It is, in other words, not just a military service or “patriotism” issue—but a character issue. Does Clinton tell the whole truth and can he be trusted?
But this week, in the run-up to the debates, the Bush campaign decided to unleash what the hope is a much more effective attack on Clinton’s character. They are charging that Clinton, while he was a student abroad, led anti-American demonstrations. Further, they make dark hints about things Clinton might have done during a trip to Moscow in 1969, and point to missing pages from his passport file as evidence that he has something to hide. Bush and his campaign team are hoping to put maximum pressure on Clinton this week so that when the debates begin, he is on the defensive and forced to explain these various charges.
So far, however, the Clinton campaign has successfully turned these attacks aside, dismissing them as “pathetic,” “sad and desperate,” and “old stories.” And, with much of the media on his side, Clinton’s has employed a careful strategy of dismissing the charges without confronting them (which would have kept them in the news for at least another day), and thus minimizing their possible effect.
It is important to note here that the full effect of this tactic is not known until after the election. By creating doubts about Clinton in the minds of the voters, Bush hopes to make it more difficult to cast a ballot for the Democrat. Doubts like this don’t always show up in the polls, but do surface just when a person is alone in the ballot booth and about to pull the lever.
What Bush has needed is a dramatic development external to the campaign that would force the public to reassess his leadership and give him the opportunity to redefine his Presidency.
To this point, however, his initial reaction to the Florida hurricane was seen by many as inadequate, which has hurt his electoral chances in that crucial state. Similarly, his belated response to the economic recession—announcing arms sales which will promote jobs and other economic programs designed to help save jobs in economically depressed areas—have not won him much public support in those areas. For example, a poll taken in the state of Missouri in the days immediately after his announcement of the F-15 sale to Saudi Arabia which would save almost 20,000 jobs, showed him still down by 13 percent.
To his credit, however, he did not foment an international crisis, such as bombing Iraq or Libya. To Bush’s great disappointment, his attempts to defuse the international crisis in the Middle East through the Madrid peace process, did not gel in time to create the kind of significant breakthrough that would have allowed him to claim credit. Had it done so, it might have helped his electoral chances.
It is especially tragic that Bush’s fortunes have sunk to this extent and that, having waited so long to begin to aggressively campaign and respond to attacks, he allowed his challengers to define him as a “failed President.” Lost in all of the public perception is recognition of the real leadership—in both domestic and foreign affairs—that Bush did in fact provide during the past four years. But politics in the U.S. is a matter of perception, and the prevailing perception (whether true or not) is that Bush was a weak President. This the perception that he must break down if he is to win.
And so George Bush approaches one intense week of debates and face-to-face encounters with his challenger, in which he will try to create dramatic events and redefine his leadership in order to boost his candidacy and to bring Clinton down. Given the volatility of the electorate and the softness of Clinton’s support up to this moment, it may be possible for the Bush campaign to manufacture a happening to jump-start his campaign. This will be difficult to accomplish, and must be done not only in the debates but followed up on in the brief interval between debates when the public opinion polls become temporarily “unfrozen.” In a sense, Bush and his campaign team will have to enlist the help of the media to produce a public relations sensation that will serve for the short period between now and the election in the place of a genuine moment of drama on the world or national stage.
Yet while the Bush campaign is mired in its troubles, there is danger, too, for the Clinton campaign. With such a substantial lead in the polls, and with so many states seemingly locked into the Democratic column, there will be a temptation to relax, to coast the final few weeks through the election. Clinton supporters are already planning their transition to power, which is an indication of overconfidence—an overconfidence that could seriously weaken the campaign against a tough campaigner like George Bush.
During the early part of the primary season, Clinton showed that he likes to act cautiously when he is leading and does not wish to take risks that might reduce his lead. Clinton himself was quiet and almost aloof during the first Democratic primary season debates when he was the front-runner. Such a strategy would be dangerous now, for two reasons.
First, the George Bush and the Republicans are working very hard to close the gap between the two campaigns. Any slackening of the Democratic effort will give Bush the opportunity he desperately needs to pick up some momentum during the final three weeks. Second, although Bush sometimes seems unclear during his public speeches, he has shown his talent as a debater, with an instinct to go for the jugular vein. During the debates this coming week he will be primed to attack Clinton on a number of issues and will be prepared to strike a dramatic blow if Clinton shows any signs of weakness. Clinton’s advisors are therefore cautioning that these debates be taken seriously. They will be rough encounters. Clinton’s bottom-line goals will be to maintain his composure, avoid mistakes and appear Presidential. He may, if necessary, decide that the best defense is a good offense and accordingly launch a surprise attack of his own.
Yet, in the debates, as in the rest of the campaign, Ross Perot is the wild card. What Bush needs is a face-to-face showdown with Clinton in which he can prove himself the better and more capable leader. No matter what his tactics are, Perot, by his very presence, will distract from Bush’s ability to accomplish this easily. Moreover, Perot harbors a strong personal dislike for George Bush, and his sharp tongue and folksy wit (which can be nasty at times), will help make the debates even more unpredictable. In this sense, Bush will need to be wary of an ambush from Perot while he is trying to attack Clinton.
To prepare the public for his appearance at the debates, and in an attempt to catch up on the groundwork laid by Bush and Clinton since Perot withdrew over the summer, Perot began to air his television advertisements. These half-hour long “infomercials” (short for “information commercials”) have become quite popular on U.S. television but have never before been used by politicians. Perot’s production received mostly positive reviews from the press and political pundits. Of most interest to the press were the enormous audiences they generated (16 million viewers), and the detailed but simple economic lessons that got through despite Perot’s awkward style of presentation. All the pundits agreed that the statistics that Perot used shed a devastating light on the Reagan-Bush (especially Bush) era.
For example, Perot used one chart which showed that in every year of the Bush presidency the nation lost more jobs that it had the year before, concluding with the 700,000 jobs lost in 1992—when the Bush Administration said the economy was getting better. He also brought up the federal budget deficit and tried to explain what it meant in terms of cuts in other programs, and how taxes would rise in the future to confront it. Perot concluded what amounted to a half hour lecture with a plea for Americans to pick a strong leader who could make difficult choices, but stopped short of asking people to vote for him.
Although there may be other impacts from these unusual political advertisements, one affect is clear: this ad hurt George Bush and probably helped Bill Clinton in the eyes of most voters. If the other ads continue along the same track, it could be even more bad news for the Bush campaign.
The Electoral College Now
Bill Clinton’s margin in electoral votes continues to grow. At present, state-by-state polling shows Clinton with a significant lead in 26 states (with 322 electoral votes—and it only takes 270 to win the election). He lead in another 12 states is less secure; but if he were to win all 38 of these states he would capture 403 electoral votes.
President Bush, on the other hand, has a decisive lead in only one state (with 5 electoral votes) and a slimmer lead in 12 other states, giving him a maximum, at present, of 135 electoral votes.
In four key states Clinton’s lead is an extremely large 20 percent or more. These include California (54 votes), New York (33 votes), Pennsylvania (23 votes) and Illinois (22 votes). Add to this the other states where Clinton’s lead is a similarly large 20 percent over Bush and Perot (Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia), and Clinton appears at this point to have a lock on 191 electoral votes.
Clinton’s lead has forced the Republicans to drastically alter their strategy. In the past, the Republicans were assured victory in enough states that they only had to block Democratic wins in a few targeted states to be guaranteed victory. This led them to focus a highly effective and concerted state-by-state media strategy. But with Clinton so far ahead they have all but given up on their old approach and have had to rely instead on seeking ways to deliver a devastating blow to Clinton on the national level and, in turn, cost the Democrat support in each state. This is not the most effective way to campaign, but this is the only approach Republican strategists see available to them at this point.
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