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National Perspective | Washington Outlook

Bush Camp Shifts to Issues, Putting Aside Challenges to Gore's Ethics

September 18, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Back in 1992, when he was a fresh-faced challenger making the case for change, Bill Clinton liked to say that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.

Maybe someone should mail a videotape of one of those speeches to the Republican National Committee. And George W. Bush's campaign. Actually, maybe somebody already has.

Like a graying rock band reduced to playing old favorites, Republicans began this month trying to reprise the same ethical arguments against Gore that they've aimed at Clinton for eight years.

Through the first two weeks of September, the GOP launched a concerted effort to raise doubts about Gore's credibility and integrity. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising for The Times, the RNC has pumped more than $3.2 million nationwide into an ad that slammed Gore for "reinventing himself" and for raising money at a Buddhist temple in 1996. So far, the RNC has spent nearly an additional quarter of a million dollars on a second ad lashing Gore more generally over his role in the fund-raising scandals surrounding Clinton's 1996 reelection.

Bush's campaign chimed in with a television ad that used Gore's rejection of the Texan's proposed debate formats to ask voters if they could "trust" the vice president on anything. And when he kicked off his fall campaign on Labor Day, Bush, for the first time, gibed Gore over his insistence that "no controlling legal authority" had prohibited his 1996 fund-raising calls from the White House.

This is exactly what many Republicans have been demanding as Gore has passed Bush in the polls. When the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard last week offered a series of recommendations on how Bush can win, the dominant suggestion was to tie Gore to the scandals surrounding Clinton.

It's not surprising that so many Republicans are convinced that ethics is the silver bullet that will doom Gore. They've believed the same thing about Clinton for eight years.

In 1992, then-President Bush's campaign published a "daily distortion" update meant to convince voters that Clinton was "evasive and slick." In 1996, Bob Dole cried, "Where's the outrage?" as the first revelations about Clinton's questionable fund-raising practices emerged. In 1998, Republicans thought another tide of outrage over Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky would carry them to a lopsided victory in the congressional election.

All of those hopes were dashed. The ethical questions surrounding Clinton never undermined his public support, and those surrounding Gore aren't likely to prove fatal either, as even some of Bush's senior strategists now acknowledge.

The GOP's problem isn't that Americans wholeheartedly endorse Clinton's ethics (or for that matter Gore's). The problem is a combination of relevance and prevalence. The campaign against Clinton mostly failed the relevance test: Most Americans concluded that his relationship with Lewinsky was a personal matter that did not ultimately impinge on the public responsibilities that affect their own lives.

In Gore's case, the larger problem is prevalence. Anyone who has interviewed voters this year knows that many Americans believe Gore skirted the edge of propriety in his 1996 fund-raising; many others believe he exaggerates, misleads or flat-out lies sometimes on issues large and small.

But it's not as if Americans believe Gore is the only politician guilty of those sins--or even that he is unusually prone to them. Indeed, most recent polls show Gore ranking even with Bush on such measures as honesty, sincerity and moral character.

"In the [numerous] focus groups I've sat through . . . the American people start from the presumption that most politicians are not pure and are playing a lot of complicated fund-raising games to be elected," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. "They don't see a lot of difference between Democrats and Republicans. Now they have put Bush in the same position Republicans got into during impeachment, which is trying to convince people that he is a better person than Al Gore. That is an almost metaphysical question that cannot be resolved through the electoral process."

With some justification, Bush and RNC officials say they aren't trying to prove that Gore is a bad person; they're trying to convince voters he can't be counted on to keep his campaign promises. "The message is that he hasn't delivered in the past and will not deliver in the future, that he will say anything, do anything and, by the way, wear anything for partisan benefit," says Cliff May, the RNC communications director.

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