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The Real Choice

The outcome in five Northern states will determine if Washington becomes a GOP fortress or a divided government with centrist designs.

October 08, 2000|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "The Cousin's War: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

WASHINGTON — One of the saddest truths of contemporary U.S. democracy--how little many voters and commentators expect of politics and elections--got some reinforcement last week that needs correcting in the second presidential debate.

Yes, Vice President Al Gore seems to be moving closer to a November victory over Texas Gov. George W. Bush, but it's still a race. Several kinds of October surprises could get in the way: an intensification of last month's stock-market slippage, some Middle East troublemaking by Saddam Hussein or another oil-price spike just as homeowners in the pivotal Great Lakes states start paying their heating bills. There's also the possibility that Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan could shake the Gore-Bush seesaws in four or five of the key Northern battleground states during the last week or 10 days. That's where the election will be decided: in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Three bones of contention that emerged in last week's debate--the hugeness of Bush's tax cuts for the top 1%, variations in how the next president will relate to the Supreme Court, Congress and the Federal Reserve (the risk with Bush is greater), and the still-vital point made by Arizona Sen. John McCain that tainted election finance has corrupted Congress--can contribute to the usefulness of the next two debates and national discussion. But first the lords and ladies of the media must get more serious.

Last week, much of the press mirrored the dumbing down of U.S. politics and gave the two contenders virtual free passes. The vice president, hitherto known for changing his image from time to time, seems to have dipped into his makeup bag once again and come out looking like . . . well, the Old Gipper himself. Talk shows have been abuzz. The hairdo was Reaganesque. The jaw was Reaganesque. Presumably, he'd also like a Reaganesque electoral-vote total. Is it too much to ask the national media to renew their chameleon watch?

As for Bush not fouling up, yeah, sure--and Dan Quayle was a good speller. The governor botched one key coverage aspect of his prescription-drug program and had to turn silent when Gore caught the mistake. His extraordinary fumble on taxes lay in having a trillion-dollar-plus tax program so tilted, so skewed, that he was unable to rebut, unable even to make a serious reply, when Gore said that Bush's plan spent more money on tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans than on all his additional funding proposals for education, health care, the environment and the military combined. The masters of the microphone cannot let this sort of thing go by.

The election now seems headed toward a finale in five undecided Northern states--Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan--that rank among the nation's 10 biggest. Florida is also a swing-state prize, but the five Northern states almost verge on bloc status. You can drive from Hoboken to Rock Island and hit nothing but these five states and 50 miles of Indiana. So the big issues, as the 1960s saying went, will get to play in Peoria.

This is not the America of investment bankers scheming for $3-million bonuses or Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs buying personal vineyards before they know how to open a chardonnay. In small-town Middle America, with its interspersed middle-class suburbs and aging factory cities, hairstyles are for beauty parlors, and subservience to the rich and big contributors is one of the Republican Party's most dangerous Achilles' heels.

National polls show that even 30%-50% of registered Republicans agree with some version of the "too favorable to the rich" critique of Bush's tax plan, and the New Jersey-to-Illinois numbers should be just as strong. When Bill Clinton and Ross Perot used some of this rhetoric against Bush's father in the weak economy of 1992, the elder Bush met the worst defeat for a sitting Republican president since Herbert Hoover in 1932.

The vice president, on the other hand, could be vulnerable to several October surprises. Should the stock market, particularly the tech-laden Nasdaq, remain shaky this month, Gore could be hurt. Earlier this year, financial analysts charted close correlations between consumer spending and the ups and downs of the Nasdaq. If stock-market results can sweeten or sour consumer spending, perhaps they can also sweeten or sour November voting. Besides which, the five Northern swing states are all in the heating-oil belt, where voters will have furnaces running and bills in the mailbox before election day.

Hussein could also want to stir trouble just before the election. What makes this likely is the dilemma of who he'd rather hurt: Clinton's vice president or George Bush's son. Even if the Iraqi president knows which one he'd prefer to embarrass, how any ploy would actually affect U.S. politics is a gamble in itself.

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