Pretty young girls in pleated miniskirts were jumping up and down at the back of the gymnasium during Vice President George Bush’s raucous campaign appearance at Christ the King High School in Queens, New York, on October 20, 1988. The girls were cheerleaders and on this bizarre occasion their eyes shone and they squealed with excitement and shouted themselves hoarse at every mention of death.
Senator Alfonse D’Amato, a New York Republican, had introduced the vice president as “George Bush, who supports the death penalty.” The students roared their approval and waved little American flags. Then Bush himself intoned, “When a police officer is murdered, the killer should pay with his life.” Upon hearing this, the cheerleaders leaped into the air and waved their pompoms. All of this was pure demagoguery. As president, Bush would play no part in the prosecution and punishment of local crimes. As president, in fact, he did not preside, either, over the execution of a single federal convict. The aim of this display was simply to point out that his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, opposed capital punishment.
Bush’s teenage death-penalty rally at Christ the King ranked as perhaps the dreariest moment in the famously dreary election year 1988. It was the year of Republican consultant Lee Atwater’s attack strategies and Roger Ailes’s negative campaign commercials—“the most negative presidential campaign of the television era, at least up to that time,” says Jules Witcover, a longtime Washington reporter and columnist who writes with passion against the degeneration of our political system.
Yet this year, against all expectation and against the normal reverse Couéism of politics—every day in every way it gets worse and worse—after the primaries the presidential campaign is being waged on a reasonably high plane. Its tone is, overall, a refreshing defiance of what has seemed to be inexorable debasement of the political process.
Both apparent nominees, Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore, come from the mainstream of their respective parties and both tend toward the center. Bush poses as the “compassionate conservative” and Gore as the “pragmatic liberal.” Both descend from political nobility, Bush the son of a former president and Gore the son of a former senator. This is a contest between two elite candidates that might be taking place in some other guise even if we had never had the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. But both were elevated, legitimately, by the American political system.
One nagging flaw, perhaps even more dangerous than destructive negative campaigning, is that the system is closed, and in this case confined to two candidates who are really cut from much the same cloth. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan are banging at the doors, and the political establishment, consisting of both politicians and the media, seems determined not to let them in on the grounds that they have no public support. This is a circular argument; one of the reasons they have so little support is that they are generally ignored by the press and will most likely be barred from the presidential debates, which require a base support of 15 percent of the electorate. In their absence, the issues they raise—maldistribution of wealth, the plight of many working families in a global economy, immigration reform—are likely to go unmentioned in a national election.
Bush and Gore have conducted a generally civil and more or less relevant debate. Both are offering proposals to enrich retirement accounts, improve the educational system, and reduce taxes for working people. They have made speeches about transportation and energy policy, and they are debating, through aides, whether or not to build a full-scale missile defense system, as Bush seeks, or a limited one, as President Clinton and Gore have proposed. (Neither has adequately recognized the many experts who claim that any such system is not likely to be workable, especially in detecting decoys.)
Even the death-penalty debate has recently been conducted on a higher level than before, in part because the candidates agree on execution. The controversy over executions in Texas is at least relevant to Bush’s record as governor and has afforded a national look at whether Texas protects the rights of defendants or, as the evidence suggests, allows them in some cases to be doomed without adequate defense. Bush seems to be teetering on the edge of danger by proclaiming his state to have a perfect record in executing only the guilty. But Gore also favors the death penalty and cannot challenge him head-on.
If anything it is the talk show press that has cheapened the discussion by concentrating on such side issues as whether or not Bush, victim of what seems to be a chronic wiseguy smirk, has looked suitably solemn as he lets executions proceed. Here, for example, are two of our ablest commentators, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the day after Texas executed Gary Graham, who was convicted of murder on the testimony of a single eyewitness. Shields, speaking of Bush: “I thought this was the finest moment of his campaign as he explained his position. He did it outside of a press conference, in a suit and tie, with appropriately serious words and manner.” Gigot agreed that “as long as he had a sober demeanor” when presiding over executions, Bush would not suffer any political penalty. Lesson for Bush: On execution day, do not smirk. Avoid girls with pompoms.
Gore’s campaign has been unusually unlucky, with high-level feuding among advisers, the resignation of the campaign chief, Tony Coelho, and the leak of a Justice Department official’s recommendation that a special counsel be named to investigate whether Gore has been truthful about his knowledge of a fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple in 1996. His effort to portray Bush’s tax and Social Security proposals as “risky schemes” was somewhat undermined when new budget projections predicted an extra $1 trillion in revenues over the next ten years. But the sniping between the two campaigns, though at times whiny, has not as yet become dirty.
In a conventional sense, this campaign season provides evidence for Professor Roderick P. Hart, who in Campaign Talk espouses the contrarian view that our presidential campaigns are as good as can be expected and, as a national conversation among politicians, press, and the public, provide more illumination than is generally understood. Witcover, a journalist who started covering elections when reporters rode campaign trains and handed their typewritten copy sheet by sheet to Western Union operators, believes the system is broken and must be changed.
Witcover’s book, written in 1999, does not take up the possibilities of the candidacy of either Buchanan or Nader. I don’t believe either of them has a chance of winning the presidency. Buchanan’s attempt to run as the Reform Party candidate seems terminally disorganized. Nader, as the Green Party candidate, is running on a ticket with Winona LaDuke, an Ojibway Indian activist from a Minnesota reservation. (A little-known detail: Mario Cuomo, once much discussed as a presidential candidate, played professional baseball under the name Glendy LaDuke.) Nader has risen to 7 percent in some polls and is not likely to rise much higher. Even the labor union support he courts so effectively accounts for less than 10 percent of the private workforce, not enough on which to base a traditional workingman’s campaign. But both Nader and Buchanan discuss issues like corporate welfare and the true impact of global trade on American working families, a vital subject for millions of people that is being ignored by the mainstream campaign in the shared, Republican-Democrat assumption that foreign trade is inherently good for all.
Nader, in addition, resurrects issues like universal national health insurance and a “living wage”—a higher minimum wage that would be partly subsidized by the government—that have entirely dropped from political discussion. Is it because the people fear that health coverage for themselves and their children will be too regulated—it is being privately regulated in any case—or because in this money-driven system, their voices are not heard? Nader also raises new issues, like the cost of getting to work. He points out that people earning $6.60 an hour in the new “edge city” and exurban growth areas have to buy cars to commute to their low-paying jobs, and worries at the burden this places on them. A corporate executive can deduct the cost of a limousine to take him to the Super Bowl—the ultimate welfare Cadillac—but a city-dwelling nurse’s aide cannot deduct the cost of getting to a suburban hospital.
For his part, Buchanan combines a populist, occasionally xenophobic economics with fervor against abortion, an issue that Bush apparently would like to sweep under the rug even though millions of people voted for him on the assumption that he is a standard right-to-life candidate.
Nader complains, with familiar hyperbole, that in fact we have only one party, that the Republicans and Democrats have become “look-alike parties” raising money from the same contributors, pursuing the same upscale voters, and generally following the same policies. It’s easy to dismiss Nader as a spoiler who will only sabotage Gore’s appeal to normally Democratic voters, especially those in labor unions. But to Nader, there’s nothing to spoil. “You can’t spoil a system that’s spoiled to the core,” he says in his standard speech. “[The two major parties] have corrupted themselves in concentric circles. It’s not just legalized bribery, it’s legalized extortion. These political shakedowns give a whole new dimension to the corruption.”
Hart, a professor of communication and government at the University of Texas, breaks with the current fashion of deploring the supposed degradation of our national politics. “Throughout the year,” he writes, “the campaign will be criticized for being beneath the American people. Its snide news coverage will be denounced, as will the candidates’ evasions and pomposities. Its advertisements will be surely savaged, even if they are comparatively benign. Ultimately, a great cry will be raised: ‘Can’t we do better than this?”’ Hart’s book suggests we cannot do better and need not do better. “The election of 2000 will have its infirmities but it will traverse a course blazed by its forebears and in so doing it will advance the democracy.”
The evidence for this Panglossian conclusion comes from a computer program called DICTION that Hart used to analyze the language used by candidates and their surrogates in post-World War II elections. Speech texts, debate transcripts, and other campaign statements were run through the computer and the words were counted and sorted into their various emotive categories—Realistic, Optimistic, Commonality, etc. The results were then studied for insights into how well the candidates communicated what they were trying to convey. Hart maintains that they exert no conscious control over the range of words they use and that their vocabulary can even convey an opposite message from the one intended.