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Jewish World Review July 20, 2000 /16 Tamuz, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Truman Show: Gore Replays 1948, But Bush Isn't Dewey


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE is back playing Harry S Truman again, but a strategy that worked in Democratic primaries may not be so successful in the general election.

Gore defeated former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) in the primaries by attacking fiercely and justifying it by saying to voters, "I'll fight for you."

It worked in part because Bradley didn't fight back. Indeed, Bradley seemed stunned, building up Gore's reputation. By the time the primaries were over, Gore had pulled even with Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) in the polls.

Gore turned his attacks on Bush for part of the spring, though without Trumanesque trappings, but it didn't do much good. Gore was criticized for going negative, lost ground in the polls and shifted to positive messages. That didn't work either, and by last month Bush's lead was averaging about 8 points.

Now, Gore is back to the Truman model, linking Bush and the "do-nothing-for-people Republican Congress" to "special interests" such as HMOs and insurance, drug and oil companies. He's been pummeling the whole lot for benefiting "the powerful and comfortable."

Gore stated and restated the theme, "I will stand up and fight for a real patients' bill of rights ... for a prescription drug benefit for all seniors ... for affordable health coverage," and demanded that Bush intervene with Congressional GOPleaders to pass such legislation.

Even though this is an activist tack and though Truman's 1948 come-from-behind victory is a hallowed moment in Democratic history, there are a few problems with it for 2000.

For one thing, Bush is not assuming the passive role that Republican nominee Thomas Dewey played in 1948, believing that the unpopular Truman would fall easily.

Even though the Bush camp has been steadily touting poll results showing Bush ahead, top Republican officials say they expect that by the time both party conventions are over next month, the race will be tight.

Bush, with his Republican base secure, is reaching out to nontraditional constituencies, including Hispanics and African-Americans, and is bolstering his appeal to moderates with "compassionate conservative" proposals.

While he's not engaging Gore directly, Bush is not letting Gore's assaults go unanswered. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer is out with a rapid response each time Gore attacks, usually around the theme that Gore is constantly reinventing himself.

Last week, Fleischer accused Gore of "dressing up in Harry Truman's double breasted suit" and of "demonstrating lack of leadership by calling on the governor of Texas to get from Congress what a sitting vice president can't."

Moreover, in the context of 1948, Truman was the centrist, opposed not only by Dewey, but by former Vice President Henry Wallace on the left and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond on the right.

Gore, with the Democratic base not yet secure, is still reaching left to bolster traditional constituencies. He's emphasizing his dedication to affirmative action and bilingual education, for instance, and avoiding advocacy of merit pay for teachers, which was voted down by the National Education Association.

Gore's populist attacks on corporations and "polluters" seem designed to keep liberals, labor union members and environmentalists from decamping to Green Party nominee Ralph Nader.

In the process, Gore risks disappointing at least some centrist New Democrats and voters whose livelihood is derived from the high-tech "new economy."

One important Washington centrist, for instance, said that "Gore is not a credible populist, with his stiff demeanor and elite upbringing. He comes off as inauthentic. He is not exactly a man of the sod."

More importantly, though, this moderate said, "Gore should be using Nader as a foil to demonstrate his centrism. He shouldn't pander to the Naderites. Harry Truman didn't pander to Henry Wallace in 1948. He fought him."

While the Democratic Party platform --written by Gore aides to his specifications --is generally centrist, it does contain a major sop for labor unions, promising that Gore "will insist on and use authority to enforce worker rights, human rights and environmental protections" in trade agreements.

If Gore insists that every new trade agreement contains such standards, the danger is that many countries will refuse to negotiate and U.S. industries will lose potential markets.

One other major question about 1948 parallels lies with Congress. While Republicans certainly are not enacting the Democratic agenda, they are looking active enough that the "do nothing" label may not stick.

Republicans are in the process of passing major tax cuts and have proposed alternatives on patients' rights and prescription drugs that at least give them cover.

Polls show that Republicans and Democrats are running about even on the generic Congressional ballot test, suggesting that the GOP Congress may not be the useful boogeyman for Gore that it was for Truman.

The big difference between 1948 and 2000, though, is that we now have televised debates. If Gore comes off as the Trumanesque fighter in that arena, and Bush is an out-of-it Dewey, history could repeat itself all over again.



JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up

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