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Playing Policy as Politics

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the 2000 presidential strategies

August 27, 2000|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

BIGFORK, MONT. — Despite his many flaws, or perhaps because of them, President Bill Clinton has been the embodiment of U.S. politics over the past decade. Clinton's blend of glitz, verve and chutzpah wrapped in a larger-than-life personality has been the ideal reflection of the American psyche. This underscores a maxim of U.S. politics: In times of economic prosperity, big personalities are writ large.

So it is on this stage of big personality politics that Vice President Al Gore must perform. For him, it is a strange and hostile environment. Because not only is Gore uncomfortable in the world of personality politics, he clearly disdains it.

Where Gore is most comfortable, and where he shines, is in the politics of policy--where big personalities take a back seat to big ideas. Where a carefully developed public policy is more important than a well-choreographed campaign tour. Where what you know is paramount to how you look. Where sharing your brain is as important as sharing your pain.

The politics of policy, however, are a tough sell in today's America. But if Gore is to win, sell it he must. Competing in the arena of big-personality politics is a loser for Gore. His challenge is to get voters to see past the smoke of personality, to the light of big policies. Gore has to make the politics of policy cool, and in the process make himself, as the embodiment of policy politics, a cool guy.

To Gore's credit, he understands his dilemma and is starting to deal with it. Gore's convention speech was a masterful beginning in reviving policy politics. No one would argue the speech wasn't full of policy, but, in this case, Gore sold his version of policy politics. He made policy personal, and it worked. By humanizing policies, whether by presenting average Americans who had benefited from Clinton-Gore programs, or by self-deprecating humor and family stories, Gore began the process of personalizing policy politics.

There is ample polling and anecdotal evidence to show that Gore's strategy worked. By humanizing policy--and, in the process, himself--Gore showed that voters want to know a candidate's position on key issues and his program to deal with them. The hitch is that the candidate and the policy must be believable.

To be believable, a policy must be discussed in terms voters understand. Is it achievable, and what are the real-life consequences? Just as important, the public wants to take the measure of the candidate offering the policy. Is he believable? Is his a program of substance or just political propaganda? How strongly does he believe what he is saying? Can he achieve what he proposes?

If Gore can sustain the connection between his personality and his policies that was presented so well in his acceptance speech, then this election will not even be close. Gore's politics of policy with a personality should trump Texas Gov. George W. Bush's politics of "aw-shucks" big personality in a heartbeat.

Already, women voters, so central to Clinton's success, have responded favorably to Gore's "policy with a personality" message. Prior to the Democratic convention, Bush led Gore among women voters in every national poll. Now, Gore has dramatically reversed this. In case you think this is just the usual post-convention bounce, polls last week showed Gore's strength among women was growing.

Not surprising, since woman voters are far more skeptical of big-personality politics than men. Women voters care about issues and insist that candidates explain how they intend to deal with them. Clinton attracted women voters not because of his big personality--in fact, that side of Clinton turned off women voters--but because of his policies. Sure, women voters are attracted to personality politics, but personality alone won't cut it. Given the choice, women voters will choose policy over personality--assuming the policy position aligns with their own. And on virtually every big issue, Gore's policy positions are more in tune with women voters than Bush's.

If Gore is to cement his lead with women voters and attract more men, he will have to incorporate his convention strategy into all aspects of his campaign. In every state, he should recruit real citizens who have or will benefit from Gore's policies. He should use the stories of these folks' needs and hopes to underscore and humanize the advantages of Gore's policies in their lives. This will also contrast Gore's policy agenda with Bush's. In that comparison, Gore and his program are king.

Gore must continue to let voters know more about his own personality and talk about the aspects of his life that brought him to champion these issues. If Gore can do this, he may well succeed in making the politics of policy cool again.

And in the process of becoming the anti-big-personality personality, Gore may well attract men to his campaign. Even male voters like a pinch of program with their leader. In the end, if Gore succeeds in personalizing policy politics, he will expose George W. for what he is--all hat and no cattle. *

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