Sat, 04 Nov 2000

The presidential race tightens, Gore ignores Clinton

By Harvey Stockwin

SAN FRANCISCO (JP): Arrive in the United States right now, and you are unlikely to be immediately jolted by some political electricity generated by the presidential election.

The only posters in sight are for the municipal-level local jobs or for the various policy propositions which will also be on the ballot on Nov. 7.

"Say No to Prop 35, Vote yes for Prop 38, Don't touch Proposition L -- it's half-baked," and so on. All the propositions relate to some policy decision which will be decided by how people vote. How long will it be before Asian democracies also get a chance to chose policies as well as personalities at the polls?

In the southern part of San Francisco and in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, they will be voting on whether or not to extend San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (or BART) subway system all the way to San Jose.

But those advocating the construction of a full-scale bullet- train express between San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego have refrained from asking for voter approval this time around. They have instead opted for a detailed engineering and environmental feasibility study. That could easily mean the project will be delayed indefinitely.

The posters in and around San Francisco, Santa Barbara. and Portland in Oregon state indicate that Asian Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino and Indian descent are all putting themselves forward as candidates, mainly for local government -- and occasionally for state and federal positions.

At least six Asian Americans -- two Chinese, two Indians, one Vietnamese and one Filipino -- are seeking election to various state houses of representatives.

Of course the vibrancy of the election process becomes more obvious once you watch television and the ads for the two national candidates, Governor George W Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore from Tennessee. It wasn't until I got to Portland, Oregon that I saw a memorable attack ad.

It showed the skyline of Houston, Texas, smothered by a thick brown polluted haze. Houston is the second most polluted city, it informed the viewers -- "Elect George Bush and this could happen to Portland."

Here in California, the conventional wisdom had been that Gore was so far ahead that Bush was not wasting his financial resources on TV advertising in the state. Neither was Gore spending his resources in order to increase his lead. But the race has tightened, here as elsewhere in the U.S..

First, Gore's California lead sank to single digits. Then it appeared that the Green Party candidate, consumer activist Ralph Nader, was indirectly helping Bush by increasing his voter appeal, thereby taking votes away from Gore, and further reducing his lead. Then Bush -- lured by the thought of making a fight for California's 54 electoral college votes -- scheduled yet another tour of California this past week, and drastically increased his spending on TV ads.

The same pattern was even more visible in Oregon state. At one point a tracking poll showed that Bush was actually in the lead with 45 percent to Gore's 41 percent with Nader soaring to 10 percent. Immediately the Bush organization took a greater interest in Oregon; while Gore, forced onto the defensive, hurriedly scheduled an extra visit to remind Oregonians that a vote for Nader could help elect George Bush.

But Oregon only has seven Electoral College votes compared to California's 54. Faced with Nader's surge, California Governor Gray Davis invited President Bill Clinton to come to the West Coast to give a boost to flagging Democratic Party fortunes.

This invitation has highlighted Gore's avoidance of Clinton throughout the post-convention campaign --- an avoidance that has drawn some sharp criticism from liberal pundits in the last few weeks.

It is accepted that at the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles and immediately afterwards, Gore's first priority was to establish that he was his "own man" -- after seven and a half years in a job which required him to be Clinton's man.

But now that he has done that, positioning himself as a populist to the left of Clinton in the American political spectrum -- it has been argued that he has been foolish to ignore the campaigning skills of the man who chose him to be vice- president eight years ago. Hence Governor Davis' invitation to Bill Clinton amidst silence from the Gore Camp.

The Gore objective has been, of course, to try and keep the issue of Clinton's impeachment dormant throughout the campaign -- and he has succeeded in doing so. Bush frequently refers to the need to bring integrity back to the White House -- but this is far as he goes. The actual impeachment has hardly been mentioned -- which is remarkable, given that traumatic event happened less than two years ago. But the Republicans are as shy about having pushed the impeachment as the Democrats are shy for having faced it.

Ironically, and as a reflection of the less than high regard in which both Gore and Bush are held, Clinton's eloquence, smooth campaigning skills, and his likeability -- are increasingly extolled as the end of his second term approaches. But now Clinton may have revived the dormant issue by giving an interview to Esquire magazine in which he says the Republicans should apologize for bringing the impeachment charges against him.

Clinton's overall absence from the election campaign is seen as something exceptional -- but in point of fact it is almost traditional for two-term presidents to fade into the background.

President Ronald Reagan did not make a great effort on behalf of then Vice President George Bush at the end of his eight years in the White House. As for Gore now, so for Bush Senior then, there was the need to emerge from the shadows in which a Vice President customarily resides.

Likewise the only other postwar President to complete two terms, Dwight Eisenhower, was not much help to then Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960. It was during that campaign that Eisenhower delivered the ultimate presidential putdown of his vice-president.

Nixon had been making the case that his experience well fitted him for the presidency. Eisenhower was asked what important decisions Nixon had participated in as Vice-president, and replied "If you give me time, I might think of one." It was a thoughtless thing to say and Eisenhower later apologized to Nixon for it -- but by then the damage had been done.

Compared to that blooper, Clinton has been the soul of discretion. The New York Times reports that the President has given the Gore campaign the final say on where and when he can be used during the election.

But that still leaves him upset that his talents have been underutilized. Gore has asked the President to discreetly help get out the black and Hispanic vote but has rejected the President being used in the many states where the candidates are running neck and neck.

This seemingly odd decision has a simple explanation: the broad-based art of politics is being subverted by a more mechanical approach symbolized by the politicians' obsession with opinion polls. Opinion polls have degenerated from being a useful tool to being a perpetual guide.

So Gore does not look at the close race and consider whether Clinton's prestige and affability could make the difference between victory and defeat. Still less does he decide that one last Gore-Clinton bus trip together would electrify the electorate.

Instead, Gore's campaign team sends out pollsters to measure the way the crucial swing voters regard Clinton. The polls show that the average swing voters, while still giving Clinton high job-approval ratings, do not have a high regard for Clinton personally. These polls suggest that, far from being an energizer, a presidential visit might well be counter-productive for Gore.

So presidential trips to the hustings are rejected on these grounds -- even when Democratic candidates out in the field have repeatedly requested presidential visits. In one way, there is poetic justice in the decision -- it was Clinton who carried the obsession with opinion polling to new heights in winning the White House in 1992 and 1996. Gore is demonstrating how he has been heavily influenced by Clinton -- by the way in which he rejects greater use of Clinton's services.

Whether Gore will suffer as a result of this political timidity remains to be seen. At least George Bush Junior has attacked the Clinton-Gore over-reliance on polls in his stump speeches, even though there is plenty of evidence that his team relies on polls just as much.

No one argues that this obsession with polling has now become a new form of dangerous demagoguery, the giving in to mass emotions and preferences rather than leading the electorate in desirable directions.

This was vividly illustrated by the three presidential debates which largely consisted of Bush and Gore indicating what handouts and plans they would set in train for the segments of the population which the polls said were crucial to their cause.

Another form of latent demagoguery is in the extent to which the political process has become a form of mass entertainment. Polls show that the audience for thoughtful political discussions is very limited. Many more people watch the late-night comedy and interview shows with the likes of David Letterman or Jay Leno or Oprah Winfrey.

If either Gore or Bush becomes President-elect on November 8th, in part it will because they had the better comedy script on late night TV.

I say "if", not because Ralph Nader has any chance of winning, but because it may well be that no clearcut result will emerge for several days.

This year's election promises to be unique in the sense that, with only a few days to go, the statistical dead heat between Bush and Gore looks like being sustained until voting day.

In 1980, the dead heat between Reagan and incumbent President Carter dissolved at the last minute, amidst the vicissitudes of the Iran hostage crisis, to give Reagan a clear majority.

Two other close elections demonstrated a different pattern.

In 1968, Nixon was comfortably ahead of Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the final stage of the campaign but his double digit lead nearly vanished on election day.

In 1960, it was John F Kennedy who was cruising to victory as the campaign ended. A last-minute surge to Nixon resulted in both candidates being separated by only one-tenth of one percent of the vote when counting finally finished.

This year, no one is cruising to victory. Given the reliance of both candidates on opinion polls telling them what to say and where to say it, it also seems unlikely that either Gore or Bush will utter the verbal blooper that will suddenly widen the lead of their opponent.

Instead it is possible that the result may provoke Americans to think of electoral reform. For the first time since the 19th Century, one candidate could win a majority of the nationwide popular vote while the other candidate becomes President by winning 270 seats or more in the Electoral College.

Delegates to the Electoral College are awarded on a winner- take-all basis in 48 out of the 50 states. Only two states award delegates on the basis of proportional representation.

Should this incredibly close election end in this unsatisfactory way, Vice President Gore and Governor Bush will have to demonstrate a greater degree of statesmanship after the election than they have demonstrated during it.