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Who's Leading Whom?

George W. Bush's margin over Al Gore is about public perception of who's more presidential.

May 28, 2000|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — What do voters see as the biggest difference between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore? Is it a) issues, b) experience, c) likability or d) leadership?

Tick tick tick.

Likability, you say? Is that your final answer?

Too bad. Because the biggest difference voters see between Bush and Gore is "leadership." When the Gallup poll asked which candidate has stronger qualities of leadership, people gave Bush a 20-point edge over Gore. That's the leadership deficit, and it explains why worried Democratic officials gathered in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, seeking reassurance that Gore's campaign is on track. It isn't.

Bush is the one positioning himself as the candidate of bold new ideas, the forward-thinking innovator who's not trapped in the stale thinking of the past. Last week, for example, Bush called for a missile-defense plan modeled on President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" plan, along with a reduction of the nation's nuclear arsenal to "the lowest possible number consistent with our national security."

A few weeks ago, Gore accused Bush of being "stuck in a Cold War mind-set" because his missile-defense plan would provoke a confrontation with Russia. But Gore is really the one playing the conservative role. Gore's message is that mutually assured destruction and arms control have worked for 50 years. Why fool with some "risky" new scheme? It's Bush who's saying, "Hey, it's a whole new world. We can try something different."

Even on Social Security, the "third rail" of U.S. politics. No party nominee has dared suggest tampering with Social Security since GOP presidential candidate Sen. Barry M. Goldwater touched it and got fried in 1964. Bush's Social Security plan is intended to appeal to baby boomers and young voters who have little faith in Social Security and a lot of faith in financial markets and in their own ability to manage their futures.

Gore is again playing the conservative role. Social Security has worked for 50 years. Why fool around with some "risky" new scheme? That's why we're seeing an enormous age difference in the vote this year. Younger voters are going big time for Bush. The only age group Gore is carrying now is seniors.

Bush is trying to convince voters to go for bold new ideas at a time when the country is secure and prosperous. Why does the country need an expensive missile-defense system when nobody threatens the U.S.? Answer: Because, Bush says, the U.S. should no longer rely on "a nuclear balance of terror" for its security. Why make big changes in Social Security when there's no immediate crisis? Answer: Because, Bush says, the Social Security system will eventually be doomed unless it changes.

Bush is betting people may be willing to take risks now precisely because they feel secure and prosperous, while Gore is trying to portray Bush as reckless. Gore's campaign slogan might as well be "Safety first." Bush even made a leadership statement by casting his lot with President Bill Clinton on the China trade deal and on Kosovo. A lot of voters wonder if Bush is smart enough or has the right experience to be president. On foreign policy, especially, Bush needs to look like a leader who embodies the national interest rather than the narrow political interests you see in Congress.

Congress is supposed to be the place where labor and Christian conservatives and American Firsters can complain about the China trade deal. It's also the place where conservatives can complain about "Clinton's war" in Kosovo and try to impose a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces. A president is supposed to be above all that, at least on world affairs.

By siding with Clinton over Congress, Bush looks like a president, not like a congressional Republican. Sooner or later, Gore is going to warn voters that if they elect Bush, they could end up with Republicans in charge of everything: the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. That hasn't happened since 1954. Bush is trying to show voters that if he's president, his agenda will dominate. Congress will not control him.

There's a reason why voters don't see Gore as a leader: He's vice president of the United States. It's not the vice president's job to be a leader. His job is to be a follower. But Gore has made the leadership deficit worse. Every move Gore makes looks like a political calculation: his relocation to Nashville last fall, his "Mr. Natural" wardrobe, his proffered handshake to Bill Bradley during a primary debate and, most damaging of all, his intervention in the Elian Gonzalez matter.

That last move caused Gore immense political damage because it reinforced what voters don't like about him. That he panders. That he'll do anything to win. That he's totally driven by politics.

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