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Pardon Me, but It's Gore's Issue

August 28, 2000|IAN SHAPIRO | Ian Shapiro is a professor and chairman of the political science department at Yale University

The post-convention Gore campaign lacks strategic focus. The Republicans are defining the terrain of debate, and Al Gore is missing golden opportunities to exploit weaknesses in his opponent that never would have escaped Bill Clinton, James Carville, Paul Begala, et al.

A glaring recent example is the lack of an aggressive response on the question of whether Gore should commit himself now to pardon, or not pardon, President Clinton in the event that he faces a Monica Lewinsky-related criminal conviction after leaving office. A less-inept Gore campaign would be making the Bush people rue the day they ever brought up the subject of presidential pardons.

On Dec. 24, 1992, 12 days before former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger was to go to trial, a lame-duck President Bush pardoned him and five other Iran-Contra defendants: former National Security Advisor Robert C. McFarlane, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and former CIA officials Alan D. Fiers Jr., Clair E. George and Duane R. Clarridge.

Why are Gore surrogates not demanding comment from the Bush campaign on the legitimacy of the elder Bush's move? Why are they not pointing to the vast gulf between the serious crimes at stake in Iran-Contra and whether Clinton's Monica lies involved criminal as well as civil contempt of court? For that matter, why aren't they mentioning President Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal? This is a political no-brainer. The Gore campaign has dropped the ball.

This failure to respond is symptomatic of larger strategic missteps by the Gore campaign. A central contradiction in the Bush candidacy lies in his claiming to be a "new" Republican even as he surrounds himself with senior figures from his father's administration. The most dramatic illustration is the Dick Cheney selection, but the constant genuflecting to others from the Reagan and Bush defense establishments leaves him wide open to questions about whether there is anything new to the new Republicans. Yet we hear nothing from the Gore side.

This failing spills over into other policy areas. Gore is defensively answering George W. Bush's charges about declining military readiness and the number of soldiers on food stamps. The Clinton administration hastily shovels additional billions to the military to try "to take the issue away" from Bush. On tax cuts, too, Gore is playing catch-up by arguing about who should get the tax breaks. What they are not saying is that the $200-billion-plus deficits were produced in the old Reagan and Bush administrations by the same type of policies George W. is now proposing: huge hikes in defense expenditures accompanied by massive tax cuts.

The math did not add up then and does not add up now. Why are the Gore people not saying so? It would enable them to seize the initiative, redefine the issue and put Bush on the defensive. Surely Gore's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention should have had a paragraph on this math, to be repeated ad nauseam by his spinners. Yet they don't do it, and Gore is dealing with the issue as the Bush campaign has defined it.

This is Gore's fourth presidential campaign. The first was a dismal failure, the next two must be judged stunning successes (regardless of one's judgment of the Clinton presidency). Yet it seems that without Bill Clinton's strategic genius at the helm, Gore's 2000 campaign may be more likely to go the way of his 1988 campaign than the more recent ones.

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