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CAMPAIGN 2000

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What Voters Want: Change, but No Change

November 05, 2000|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst at CNN

ATLANTA — Savor the moment: This is the first presidential election in more than 20 years when, two days before the vote, we really don't know who's going to win.

The media have created the image of a deeply polarized electorate, divided into two firmly committed camps warring over a tiny pool of undecided voters. That's wrong. The voters are not polarized. They're of two minds--about the election, the candidates and the country.

As a rule, one of two themes dominates any election. Either "You've never had it so good" or "It's time for a change." What's unusual about 2000 is that people feel both ways. In overwhelming numbers, they believe this is the best economy of their lifetime. But they also feel it's time for a change of leadership. Not a change of direction. It's not like 1980, after one term of Jimmy Carter, or 1992, after one term of George Bush. In those years, voters were angry and wanted something radically different. Compared with 1980 and 1992, America in 2000 is a hotbed of social rest.

Voters are also of two minds about the candidates. One is not particularly likable. The other is not particularly knowledgeable. It drives Democrats crazy that voters seem to care more about likability than knowledgeability. My God, don't people understand they're electing a president of the United States? Well, yes. But there's no big problem out there that needs fixing. No economic crisis. No mounting budget deficit. No foreign threat. No scandal.

If voters thought something needed fixing, they'd hire someone with the know-how to fix it. After all, they elected Richard M. Nixon twice, and no one ever called Nixon likable. In 1968, he seemed to have the knowledge and experience to fix what was wrong. But Nixon lost in 1960 when nothing much was wrong. Voters went for the guy they liked better.

Gore is playing Nixon this year, the knowledgeable candidate who's hard to like. Bush is playing Reagan, the likable candidate whose knowledgeability is in question. But the threshold for electing Bush is lower than it was for Reagan because this year, unlike 1980, the country is not in crisis.

Voters are also of two minds about Bill Clinton. The president's job ratings are at a record high, but personal feelings about him are at a record low. Because voters feel Clinton is doing a good job, they don't want a change of direction. Because Clinton embarrassed the country, they want a change of leadership. Bush has been struggling to convince voters that he's not going to take the country off in some radically different direction. Gore's been struggling to convince voters that he's a different kind of leader.

Gore hopes to make the election a referendum on the economy: the biggest surpluses in history, 22 million new jobs and so on. Bush scoffs. Clinton and Gore don't deserve credit for the good economy because government didn't make it happen.

The voters seem to be buying the GOP line. They tell pollsters Bush would be just as good as Gore at keeping the nation prosperous. After all, most Americans are not sure exactly what Clinton did to turn the economy around. No war like the 1940s. No big public-works spending like the 1950s. No tax cut like the 1960s. No defense build-up like the 1980s.

Clinton claims his economic plan, which passed Congress without a single Republican vote in 1993, set the country on a course of deficit reduction. But that plan included a tax increase. Voters were outraged. Democrats paid a terrible price in the 1994 midterm. It's kind of hard to get voters to see a tax hike as a heroic measure deserving of reward.

Gore is also running as a populist, raring to "fight for you" against big corporations and insurance companies. The vice president says he wants to extend prosperity to those who haven't benefited from it. Bush's response? Gore wants government to pick the winners.

Gore may have fallen into the trap of running on a platform of economic populism during good times. Fairness is a powerful theme in bad times, like 1992. If middle-class people feel threatened, they are receptive to the argument that there's something wrong with the system. But when times are good, like now, middle-class Americans think the system is working just fine. If some people aren't making it, it must be their own fault.

Gore is also warning voters that Bush's huge tax cut could wreck the economy. Bush's response: Gore's proposal for a record amount of new federal spending would really wreck the economy.

It's kind of odd, when you think about it. The government is projecting a huge federal surplus, some $3 trillion. Bush believes the surplus justifies his big tax cut. It doesn't. Voters do not seem terribly enthusiastic about Bush's plan to give a quarter of the surplus back to the taxpayers. They'd rather see the money used to secure Social Security and pay off debt.

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