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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2000 /1 Adar I, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Goodbye to
premature polling --
HE HAD ALL the money. TV pundits were wondering whether democracy itself had been subverted. Why even bother to hold the election when it was so clear that George W. Bush would walk away with the prize?

New Hampshire's results should convince everyone that premature polling is worthless. Asking voters who are not yet interested in the matter who they will support for president more than a year in advance yields misleading information. In this instance, it may have done more. It may have yielded a candidate who is unprepared for a national campaign.

George W. Bush is not the first well-endowed contender to discover that money doesn't buy inevitability. The names Huffington, Gramm and Connally also come to mind. But he may be the first candidate for president who got into the race primarily because the polls were suggesting that he'd be successful.

The huge polling advantage Bush enjoyed vis-a-vis Al Gore last spring has since shrunk considerably. And suddenly, the raison d'etre of the Bush campaign ("He can win") is looking feeble at best. If you run for office advancing any other cause, you can withstand setbacks. But if your one rationale is that you can win -- you'd better.

One irony of New Hampshire's result has not been widely noticed: John McCain has partially disproved his own premise. Wasn't part of his message that money is all-powerful in American politics? Yet he just trounced the man with the millions!

Perhaps the New Hampshire rout will galvanize George W. Bush into the sort of transformation candidates sometimes manage. Perhaps he can find some core of passion and, yes, vision that will compensate for his unimpressive grasp of policy detail. But if news reports are correct, and Bush plans only to re-emphasize his tax-cut plan, he is going down.

Any Republican who hopes to win in November must understand that tax cuts do not resonate with voters the way they once did. In the first place, as the American Enterprise Institute's demographer Karlyn Bowman explains, voters do not trust promises of tax cuts from federal officials (though they often do trust governors' pledges).

Further, as Bruce Bartlett showed in a recent issue of Policy Review, though taxes are now higher than they were when Proposition 13 ignited a tax revolt, voters do not place tax relief at the top or even the middle of their agendas. Bartlett attributes this to the wealth effect. Most pension
plans have been switched from "defined-benefit" to "defined-contribution" (401(k)s and IRAs). Under the old system, increases in the stock market had no effect on workers' pensions or wealth. Under the new system, people see their wealth increasing year by year. And stocks have doubled as a share of household net worth in the past 10 years. Result: Taxes seem lower even if they aren't.

It is also the case that tax changes in the past few years have shifted the burden dramatically upward. According to the House Ways and Means Committee, those earning more than $100,000 per year, 8 percent of the population, paid 62 percent of all income taxes in 1999. When Democrats charge, as they always will, that tax cuts will go primarily to "the rich," they will be correct (assuming, for the sake of argument, that 100 grand qualifies as rich) because the system has become so top-loaded.

No, the 2000 race is likely to be run on issues with which Democrats are traditionally more comfortable: Social Security, education and health care.

Republicans can score well on these matters, but it requires study and mastery. It is easy to picture the unscrupulous Al Gore tearing Bush to shreds. And if Pat Buchanan wins the Reform nomination and muscles into the debates, he could further wound the genial governor.

The campaign will be run on issues, but it will be about character. Voters are hungering for the anti-Clinton. Bush is diffident about the Clinton sty and evasive about his own past. Gore could plausibly argue that, as between the Buddhist Temple and Bush's conquered alcohol problem, it's only fair to let bygones be bygones. Al Gore can't try that with McCain.

One needn't like McCain's entire platform to acknowledge that the man may have met his moment.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate