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Can Gore Replicate Bush's Jump?

May 18, 1997|William Schneider | WASHINGTON; William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

Al Gore wants to be the next George Bush. Are we talking a parachute jump? Sort of. Bush performed a political parachute jump in 1988, when he became the first vice president in more than 150 years to go directly from the No. 2 job to No. 1 by virtue of an election. Now Gore's getting ready to shout "Geronimo!"

The current and former vice presidents are a lot alike. So much so that many of the problems Gore now faces are the same Bush once faced. Patrick J. Buchanan alluded to one on the night of the 1992 New Hampshire primary when he declared, "Today the Buchanan brigades met King George's army!" King George, meet Prince Albert.

Both men are preppies, to the manor born, the sons of U.S. senators--Prescott Bush, Republican of Connecticut; Albert Gore Sr., Democrat of Tennessee. Both sons were bred for high political office. They may live in the South, eat pork rinds and listen to country music, but that doesn't fool anyone. Bush and Gore are quintessential establishment figures.

Both men embarrassed themselves the first time they ran for president. For Bush, that was in 1980. Remember Bush's "Big Mo"? It started in Iowa. It ended a few days later in New Hampshire, when he came up against Ronald Reagan.

In the 1988 New York primary, Gore played country bumpkin to Mayor Ed Koch's city slicker. Like a lot of country boys who come to the big city, Gore got rolled, receiving just 10% of the vote. Even worse, Gore was charged with pandering to Jewish voters, on the Israel issue. The same charge was brought against Bush in 1988, when he tried to ingratiate himself with the far right. One columnist called him a "lap dog."

It was in a 1988 New York primary debate that Gore brought up Michael S. Dukakis' furlough of a prisoner named Willie Horton. No one paid much attention--except Bush's opposition research director.

Both Bush and Gore started out as moderates, men of, shall we say, ideological flexibility. Bush shifted from pro-choice to anti-abortion. Gore went the other direction. Once a staunch opponent of federal funding of abortions, Gore now echoes Clinton's defense of abortion rights. That kind of attitude adjustment goes with the job. Remember Jack F. Kemp's abrupt about-face on immigration and affirmative action when Bob Dole put him on the ticket last year?

Gore and Bush have reputations for being slippery, even beyond their job requirements. Bush made a famous pledge on taxes and famously broke it. Before the Persian Gulf War, Gore maintained the only legitimate war objective was to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. A few months after the war, he said, "I don't think we should have left Saddam's regime in place" and called Bush's decision to do so "a tragic mistake."

Bush was not a great communicator ("Message: I care"). Neither is Gore, who often addresses the public as if we were all second graders and he was Mr. Rogers.

Gore has used personal tragedy for political advantage. He told last year's Democratic convention, "Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow. One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister's." Bush has done that, too. In a 1988 campaign debate, he said, "Bar and I lost a child, you know that. We lost a daughter, Robin. Went to the doctor. The doctor said--beautiful child--'Your child has a few weeks to live . . . . She has leukemia.' "

Both vice presidents were tainted by scandal. Bush tried to explain his way out of the Iran-Contra scandal by insisting he was "out of the loop." Gore tried to explain his way out of the fund-raising scandal by insisting "my counsel advises me there is no controlling legal authority that says any of these activities violated the law."

Both vice presidents had a "wimp" problem. Newsweek made it a cover story in 1987. Just last week, the New York Times ran an article asking, "Can Al Gore take a punch?"

Both vice presidents had to prove they were tough guys. Bush did it by taking on CBS News anchor Dan Rather. Remember this amazing TV moment in 1988? Bush to Rather: "It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?" Ka-pow!

Gore did it by taking on Ross Perot. Remember the 1993 NAFTA debate? Gore to Perot: "I served in the Congress and I don't know of any single individual who lobbied the Congress more than you did, or people on your behalf did, to get tax breaks for your companies." Ka-boom!

Bush overcame the vice-presidential curse for one big reason: Reagan's popularity. Bush got the nomination because Reagan owned the GOP, and Bush was his chosen successor. Bush went on to win because Americans did not want to undo the Reagan revolution. Bush ran a harsh, negative campaign to convince them Dukakis would do just that.

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