Do you sense things are moving, immeasurably but perhaps decisively? I do.
George W. Bush not only won the debate Wednesday night, but in a way that damaged a central assumption of the Gore campaign. That assumption is that Mr. Bush doesn’t know very much. But Mr. Bush demonstrated that he knows a lot, and that his common-sense views and observations can be spoken in a common-sense language accessible to all. He sat back in his chair, spoke of America’s role in the world, and made it clear that that role should be grounded in moral modesty and strategic realism. He suggested that the various forces at work in the world should be met not with American hubris but with moderation, and with attention to the kind of example we can, as a great power, set. He seemed thoughtful, knowledgeable, and he buried the memory of the less-seasoned Gov. Bush who one day in Boston flailed when pressed by an interviewer who insisted he name the ruler of Pakistan.
But what must have been most painful for Al Gore was that Mr. Bush showed that in six years of government he has learned as much about government and policy as Mr. Gore has in 24 years.
He was Mr. Gore’s equal or better. He has come a long way as a candidate. By the end, I thought of something I hadn’t thought of in a while. About two years ago I saw George Shultz, a man of great judgment and experience who is both shrewd and wise. Mr. Shultz told me that George Bush, the Texas governor, would run for president, and that he was enthusiastically supporting him.
I was surprised. Isn’t Bush . . . young? I asked. He’s been governor for one term, is that enough experience?
Mr. Shultz’s eyes narrowed, and he shot me a look. I’ve spent time with him, he said. “He’s like Reagan. He’s got it.” He told me Mr. Bush had a Reaganesque understanding of the world and attitude toward it, and a Reaganesque charm to boot.
I was impressed. It was the moment I started to realize Mr. Bush was coming down the pike.
Watching Mr. Bush in the debate Wednesday night I remembered that conversation and thought: Now I am seeing what George Shultz saw.
* * *
In the postdebate analysis Mr. Gore was called “anesthetized.” I found him only subdued, but that was not his problem. His problem was that he was so busy constraining his natural aggression, his desire to make himself big by making others small, that he spent all of his energy keeping himself in. And the space left by the absence of his aggression was not filled by warmth or humor or a philosophical turn. It wasn’t filled at all.
Or rather it wasn’t filled by Mr. Gore. It was filled by Mr. Bush—with his humor and warmth and a philosophical turn.
As a personality and in terms of character Bush is, of course, more attractive than Gore—more “normal”, more genuine and authentic and good natured.
It has been established already in this race that Mr. Gore tells a lot of lies, that he lies a lot even for a politician. But I think it has also been established that Mr. Bush not only does not lie but is probably incapable of lying. He is, transparently and simply, not a liar but a plainspoken teller of the truth as he is able to see it. This is a wonderful thing in anyone, and marvelous in a politician. A palpably honest man running for office in the Clinton era!
A friend of mine who is liberal and a Democrat sighs that Mr. Gore now seems like someone whose innards have been taken over by pod people; he is a robot, or something worse, something—Damien-like!
This is not a new thing to say. But my sense is that all of this, the Bush-knows-his-stuff part and the Gore-is-dishonest part, the Bush-is-a-good-man part and the Gore-is-another-weirdo part, has filtered down in the country in a way that is becoming decisive.
I think Mr. Bush has begun to win. Or rather Mr. Bush has begun to win again. In some immeasurable way he is moving forward, gaining ground, becoming seen by more and more people as a good man who can be a good president. This idea of Mr. Bush is driving forward, and the image of Mr. Gore as the next president is receding, shrinking back.
I think this in part not because of the second debate, but the first.
* * *
In the first Bush-Gore debate most of the instant polls and those who chatter on television and write in newspapers, including me, said that Mr. Gore had won. Mr. Bush, to my mind, was not impressive, was on the defensive, did not follow through on his thoughts. That was pretty soon more or less the common wisdom—at least for a few days and at least among the chattering classes.
But only a week after that first debate, the common wisdom has changed. The first debate damaged Mr. Gore, we now know, and not Mr. Bush. It was Mr. Gore’s highhandedness, his smugness, the sighs and eye rolling. I had seen the highhandedness—everyone had—but I didn’t know it would be received by people as so obnoxious, and that it would ultimately prove so damaging.
People say it was the now-famous “Saturday Night Live” debate skit with the horrid Gore and the bumbling Bush that did it. But that skit didn’t give form to public opinion, it caught and reflected public opinion that had already jelled. And why did it jell so critically against Mr. Gore? That’s where guessing comes in, and here’s mine. People—more people than have been quantified by and spit out into the polls—don’t like Al Gore. They are looking for a reason to not vote for him. They want to like Mr. Bush. And if Mr. Bush, in the first debate, didn’t give enough reason to like him people were ready enough to respond to the reasons Al Gore gave them not to like him.
In the second debate, Mr. Bush gave plenty of reason to like him. And as Mr. Bush gives them more reasons to be for him they will continue to turn toward him, and the turning I think will be reflected in time in the polls.
* * *
When George Bush the elder ran for president in 1988 after eight years as vice president in a stunningly successful administration—the biggest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history, the impending defeat of Soviet communism—Bush made an argument lifted from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940 campaign. FDR, attempting to become America’s first three-term president as the winds of war swept east to west, said: “Don’t change horses in midstream.” George Bush in 1988 said: When you have to change horses in midstream, doesn’t it make sense to take the horse that’s going in the same direction?
Mr. Gore has been implicitly making that argument all year. My sense is it is not or is no longer taking. Because too many people think that in the case of Clinton-Gore, the horse didn’t take the stream, the stream carried the horse. The horse didn’t get us to the shore; Bill Clinton wasn’t the hardy cowboy who got us safely across. It was the stream itself—the stream of American invention and entrepreneurship—that pushed the horse across safely. When Mr. Gore makes his argument that he and Mr. Clinton created the new economy, I suspect more and more voters are coming to feel: I was the horse, and 100 million like me, and we made it across the stream carrying these two heavy guys who brag now about how well they wielded the whip.
* * *
Some weeks back I called the race the battle of Dumb-Good vs. Evil-Smart. But I must tell you, I just spent five days in America. I left the island on which I live and journeyed through the continent, at least as far as Colorado, and then Indiana. And the strong impression I got is that more voters than I knew see this race more and more as a battle between Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. The idea that Mr. Gore is a phony, a creep, a dishonest guy who doesn’t know who he is, is out there. The idea that he’ll shape-shift and do and say anything to win is, simply, out there. And so is the idea—there is no polite way to say this—that he is not fully stable, that he is altogether as strange and disturbing as Bill Clinton.
As for Mr. Bush, in conversations with normal people I did not get the impression that they think he’s stupid. I got the impression they were debating and making their minds up about his policies. The most striking conversation I had was with an airport van driver, a big strapping mid-20s young man who wants to be a fireman. He told me he wasn’t sure whom he’d vote for. I told him that in a time of peace and plenty I’d expect a lot of people to vote for the incumbent, and I asked why he hadn’t committed to Mr. Gore. He looked over at me and said, with what seemed some embarassment, “I kind of get the impression he’s . . . a liar?” I asked why he hadn’t yet gone for Mr. Bush, then. He said he wasn’t sure Mr. Bush was right about tax cuts. It seemed clear to me though, the way he described how he saw both men, that his vote, ultimately, wouldn’t go to the liar.
No one knows of course, but my sense is that aversion to Al Gore is reaching some kind of critical mass, that the charge that he is a dishonest man at a time when we badly need an honest leader has taken hold, and that this is damaging to Mr. Gore to a greater degree than Bush-isn’t-smart-enough has been damaging for Mr. Bush.
I think Mr. Bush is winning, I think it’s happening day by day, and I think things will probably get real ugly real soon. The next presidential debate, next Tuesday, should be full of sparks and drama. Mr. Gore won’t be constrained next time; by now he’s decided the only way to take Mr. Bush is to pound him into the ground. He’ll go after Mr. Bush with knives and knuckles. People do what they know how to do, and that’s what he knows how to do.
We’ll see how Mr. Bush handles it. One thing about him Wednesday night: he sure didn’t look afraid. He didn’t look cowed. He looked happy. Like someone who knows something.