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Jewish World Review March 26, 1999 /9 Nissan 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Politics as dog food

( A MID-FEBRUARY NATIONAL POLL asked an unusual question. The answers may well set the shape of a plausible Gore-Bush presidential election in 2000, and the direction of America after that.

But first, a Madison Avenue fable.

Seeking to produce a new dog food, a big corporation set market researchers, food chemists and advertising agencies to work. The experts came up with a new product they were proud of. The dog food sold well, for a while. Then it slumped. Puzzled, the corporate executives commissioned a public opinion firm to see what was wrong.

Soon, the answer came back: "The dogs don't like it."

The real survey, not the fabled one, was taken by the Pew Research Center. It included two questions about each of the prospective presidential candidates running in the 2000 primaries. The first, quite traditional, was: "Have you heard of BLANK?" The second, not traditional at all, was: "Would you consider voting for him (her)?" That "consider" word is very tough, much tougher than the standard "approval rating" or "pairing," which sets Candidate Jones against Candidate Smith. If a respondent says he won't "consider" voting for a candidate, that's moving toward saying, "No, never."

Among registered voters, 98 percent have heard of Vice President Albert Gore. Of those, 52 percent say they would consider voting for him, while 45 percent (or about 47 percent of likely voters) say they would not consider voting for him.

Why not? Andrew Kohut director of the Pew poll, who first started using the "would you consider" formulation in 1995 and 1996, says that the respondents are telling surveyors that Gore is boring and uninspiring. Kohut speculates (but does not yet have proof) that there is lots of "Clinton fatigue" in the results. He thinks voters are saying they agree with the direction Clinton has set, but they're fed up with the whole Clinton operation, Gore included. Another clue: 31 percent of the respondents think Gore is "too liberal." (Think Walter Mondale; think Michael Dukakis.)

These are very difficult numbers for Gore because he is so well known, so knowledgeable, with such a sterling resume. Sixty percent of the voters who have heard of Lamar Alexander say they would not consider voting for him -- but only 42 percent know who he is -- leaving room for him to operate. Gore's been on the national stage for almost seven years. Voters don't like that dog food.

By contrast, Gov. George W. Bush's stats are very different. Most people have heard of him (94 percent) and of those who heard of him 72 percent would consider voting for him, while 24 percent would not. Only 20 percent think he is "too conservative." Here too Gore faces a dilemma. He has to stay left of center for a while to keep Democratic activists on board during his one-on-one campaign against Sen. Bill Bradley. (55 percent have heard of Bradley, 39 percent say they wouldn't consider voting for him.) Bush, with a split field, can stay where he is.

And Gore-bashing on ideological grounds has barely begun. Gore received a free pass on his very controversial, passionate, best-selling, well written, non-ghosted 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance." A recent article by Adam Wolfson in the conservative National Review looks at it again. Carefully citing chapter, verse and context, quote by quote, Wolfson says Gore's book is the work of an apocalyptic environmental extremist, who has convinced himself that the modern acquisitive consumer culture is comparable to a totalitarian one, including very specifically Hitler's, Stalin's and Mao's. (Russians got the gulag, we got the sprawl.) That's not boring, but wait till the voters taste that dog-food.

(I've only read excerpts of Gore's book. I'm now going to read it all. What had previously riled me most about Gore was his 1998 characterization of those who support a "colorblind" society as "hypocrites," or, as Gore put it in a hot speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, "We see through your colorblind. Amazing grace saved a wretch like me. Was colorblind but now I see.")

Democrats now see Gore as a potential big problem. They think, with some real merit, that they have a good chance of recapturing the House of Representatives, and possibly even the U.S. Senate. But that's not likely to happen if the Democratic candidate at the top of the ticket loses solidly.

Therefore what? Consider these speculations: 1. Bill Bradley will do far better than expected in the 2000 primaries; 2. Democrats who have decided not to run -- Sen. Bob Kerry and Sen. John Kerrey, to name two, will reconsider (and what about Sen. Joe Lieberman?); 3. Democratic candidates will start distancing themselves from Gore, just as Gore distances himself from Clinton; and 4. George W. Bush will be the next president, with a Republican House and Senate, a matter you should consider.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."


03/19/99: Bush-whacked Bush-whackers
03/08/99: Axioms for good politicians
02/26/99:L.A., D.C. try to get back to the past
02/23/99:The sprawl brawl
02/11/99:Celebrated lives writ short
01/28/99:Who's afraid of the Euro?
01/25/99:The Vast Right-wing conspiracy and Danny Williams: The last word (hopefully)
01/14/99:Sum of scandal? It's OK
12/31/98: Predictions? I don't think so
12/11/98: Better dead than read?
11/25/98: Polling the Pilgrims
11/13/98: The icon and the iconoclast
11/06/98: What happened? Nothing!
10/28/98: Two billion never-borns!
10/22/98: Election pundits know nothing
10/15/98: The too-big-to-fail doctrine
9/29/98: The Jerk Factor at work
9/24/98: American civic engagement thriving
9/16/98: Anatomy of a cover-up
9/09/98: Draft Joe Lieberman!
9/03/98: Get over it, folks
8/28/98: McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

©1999, Creators Syndicate