Wednesday, January 12, 2000

In the Democratic debate last week, Vice President Al Gore not only got the worst of the argument on gays in the military, but (in the words of H.H. Munro at the turn of the last century) he suffered the humiliating novelty of getting the worst of his monologue. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain’s campaign was thrown into neutral by the ill-timed report that Mr. McCain the avatar of campaign finance hygiene may have acted in the interest of a contributor (it was a cheap shot, but an effective one.)

In the weekend Democratic debate in Iowa, former Sen. Bill Bradley the self-portrayed insouciant intellectual in the race had a Dan Quayle moment when Mr. Gore slapped him silly over an old Senate vote denying flood aid to Iowa. Mr. Bradley’s baffled facial expression and following silence looked more like the effort of a retired boxer than a former Princeton man.

Finally, in this Monday’s Republican debate in Michigan, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in a mixed performance, kicked away his chance to have won the week. He showed a ready wit and a newfound television ease, but his utter inability to articulate a description of his China policy kept alive the unfortunate intellect question. By all rights, Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain are ready to be knocked out. But neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Bush seems capable of landing the put-away punch.

Mr. Bradley’s quirky little campaign is premised on the questionable assumption that the American people have eagerly been waiting for the opportunity to vote for a prickly, arrogant former moderate who seems to have just discovered the great liberal issues of the 1950s: civil rights and an ever bigger welfare state. At least President Clinton’s smarmy invocation of liberal platitudes was tempered by the knowledge that he didn’t mean it. Mr. Bradley sounds as if he is running for Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of health, education and welfare.

The only emotion Mr. Bradley is able to project is perturbed. What a joy it is to watch him repeatedly whine, “That’s not true, Al.” His performance is eerily reminiscent of Mr. Drysdale’s secretary on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Other than Mr. Gore’s terminal political clumsiness, the main thing keeping Mr. Bradley in the race is his inexplicable appeal to big money, white, male New York stockbrokers who played basketball at Harvard and can’t get enough of that intoxicating Knick’s locker-room ambience.

Across the aisle, you know that Mr. McCain’s shtick is wearing thin when the New Yorker’s Joe Klein writes a hilarious column this week in which he complains that Mr. McCain is too honest and forthcoming. Mr. Klein, who swooned early and hard for Mr. Clinton the New Democrat reformer (before writing “Primary Colors” as penance for his earlier misjudgment) is the platonic ideal of a McCain supporter earnest, reformist, nonpartisan, idealistic, centrist. Things may well be getting a tad dicey for Mr. McCain when Mr. Klein writes 2,000 words quoting friends and staffers of Mr. McCain to the effect that they all start groaning when Mr. McCain confesses yet another shortcoming. Flagellants rarely end up as the life of the party.

But there is a reformist breeze blowing from west of the Potomac, and both Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain have tacked into it. It is the same breeze that Ross Perot started in 1992 and that both Mr. Clinton and Newt Gingrich, in their times, briefly were able to catch. It blows stronger today than it has since Mr. Perot because the booming economy permits people the luxury of worrying about reform. The sitting vice president and K Street homey, Mr. Gore, would have to be a world-class sailor to catch a reform breeze. So far in his life, Mr. Gore has not shown himself to be a world-class anything. But Mr. Bush, who has never lived in Washington long enough to join a decent club, ought to be able to grab a piece of the reform wind. That he hasn’t even tried for it is the only strategic mistake he has made so far in the campaign. Like all campaigns, his has endured various tactical misplays and operational failures, but with the exception of missing the reform issue, his strategy cannot be gainsaid. It’s not too late. The public is only now beginning to pay attention. And, as reform is Mr. McCain’s primary issue, if Mr. Bush develops a plausible reform riff, he should be able to finish Mr. McCain off.

As the candidate of the Republican Party establishment, Mr. Bush will be discouraged from mentioning reform. But it would do both Mr. Bush and the Republican Party much good for him to be seen pushing some reform issues in the face of party resistance. As the public doesn’t want to do anything that might slow down the rise of the Nasdaq, Mr. McCain’s radical reform might well look dangerously bold. But Mr. Bush’s easygoing Texas establishmentarianism, tempered with just a dash of reform, might well be just the ticket.

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