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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush Shifts Emphasis in Race to Size, Scope of Government

Strategy: Seeking more contrast in campaign, the Texas governor paints Al Gore as favoring a big bureaucracy.

October 15, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN Jeff Leeds..BD: TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A ghost that Democrats thought they had exorcised has returned to haunt Al Gore in the final weeks of his whisper-close struggle with George W. Bush.

In a presidential campaign in which both candidates now are seeking to minimize their differences about issues as diverse as gun control and the crises in the Middle East, Bush is drawing one of the sharpest lines by aggressively framing the race as a referendum about the size and scope of the federal government.

"I'm running against a man who wants to empower the federal government," Bush declared at a rally here late last week. "And this is a campaign that wants to empower the American people."

With this stark rhetorical contrast, Bush has found a single theme to unify his disparate proposals to cut taxes, reform Social Security and Medicare, and provide private school vouchers to low-income parents whose children attend poorly performing public schools.

Even more significantly, Bush is calling the bluff on a political wager at the core of the "new Democratic" strategy that Vice President Gore and President Clinton have pursued.

Like Clinton, Gore has bet that the public will support new federal spending--even substantial new spending--if it is bounded by promises of fiscal responsibility; in effect, Gore is assuming that his promises to keep the federal budget in balance and pay off the publicly held national debt by 2012 will shield him from Republican charges of profligate spending. But Bush is calculating that voters will recoil from the sheer amount of spending in the Gore plan--even if it keeps the federal budget in the black.

By framing the choice this way, Bush is seeking to shift the debate to more favorable terrain. Instead of arguing the merits of each of Gore's individual spending proposals--many of which are popular in the polls--Bush is bundling them together and denouncing the resulting package as a return to big government, a notion that has far less public support.

"Gore is betting that it is the individual parts that matter," Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says. "Bush is betting that the whole is greater and more important than the sum of the parts."

Many Democrats, including some in Gore's campaign, worry that Bush's argument is gaining traction. In an ABC/Washington Post survey last week, three-fifths of Americans polled said they preferred a smaller government with fewer services over a larger government with more services. But nearly 70% thought Gore wanted a bigger government; 60% thought Bush wanted a smaller government. Likewise, a Time/CNN poll released Saturday found that 54% of likely voters felt Bush shared their views concerning the proper size and role for the federal government, while only 45% felt that way about Gore.

Surplus Puts New Spin on Things

Findings such as those have some centrist Democrats fearful that Gore has placed so much emphasis on his new spending programs--particularly his plan to provide prescription drug benefits to senior citizens--that he's failed to project any commitment to streamlining government, a theme central to Clinton's message. While Gore has defended Clinton's signature government reforms--particularly his commitment to welfare reform and the balanced budget--the vice president hasn't advanced a reform goal of his own that is nearly as memorable.

"The politics of the surplus has changed things," worries Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "What's happened now is you can't just say 'I'm for fiscal discipline, I'm going to pay down the debt,' and have people assume you're for smaller government, because with the surpluses being as large as they are, you can have hundreds of billions of dollars of new programs, no fiscal discipline, and still pay down debt. You have to be for reform as well as fiscal discipline. You have to do things in a new way."

The sharpest irony in this new assault is that Republicans are using Clinton as a foil to belittle Gore. In a striking speech recently, Bush favorably cited Clinton's 1996 declaration that "the era of big government is over" and suggested that Gore had strayed from Clinton's path. For Gore, Bush insisted, "big government has never really been dead; it has simply been biding its time, waiting for its next chance." In new television advertisements, the Republican National Committee echoes that theme, accusing Gore of proposing three times as much new spending this year as Clinton did in 1992.

"This is an important transformation in the race," said one senior Democratic strategist who asked not to be identified. "By saying that Gore is for government and that he [Bush] is for empowering people, Bush in a way has really laid claim to Clinton's formulation. In effect, he's depicting Gore as a pre-Clinton Democrat. It strikes me Gore doesn't even realize it's happening to him . . . but I think it's working."

Building on Clinton's Spending Plans

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