- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

The fact that emerges from the mess of campaign 2000 is that the "issues" - as defined by the Gore campaign and their megaphone in the press - were not nearly as important as anyone was saying.

After all, does anybody believe that roughly 100 million people went to the polls to make sure that old people wouldn't be "forced to choose" between the early-bird special at Sizzler and free prescription drugs? Probably not - though that could explain how so many nice old ladies in Palm Beach overpunched their chads.

No, it's clear that the "issues" were, at best, props used by political actors on both sides. A brief glance at a county-by-county map of the election results shows that the Democratic Party is the party of city-dwellers and coastal elites - what former Delaware Gov. Pete Du Pont recently called "the porn belt."

In contrast, the Republican Party won a topographical landslide, capturing literally all of rural America, the solid South (including Gore's and Clinton's home states), and most of the Midwest and Southwest. This is not a result one gets from an electorate highly charged about wonkish policy details.

Of course, the Democrats were never particularly thrilled to run on Gore himself. Saddled with a candidate who comes fairly close to the human incarnation of a toothache, Democrats took great refuge (during phase one of the election) in the fact that the "issues" were on their side (in part two, they took even greater solace in the fact that hanging chads were on their side). Education, the environment, Social Security, etc., we were constantly told, were what the voters wanted to hear about and what they wanted to vote on.

Depending on his audience, the vice president would often scream at rallies that this election wasn't about "personality" but policy "specifics." And, in its waning days, the Gore campaign even took to running commercials (ital) without (end ital) the candidate, finding it more useful to hector the voters on the "issues," without reminding them of the painful fact that Gore and not, say, "prosperity" was on the ballot.

And, yes, the Gore campaign was correct in a sense. His position on the issues - tested and focus-grouped as they were - did lead in the polls by double digits at times. But if America (ital) voted (end ital) on the issues, Gore would have won in a landslide. Why didn't that happen?

One of the reasons has to be voter vanity. When ordinary folks are asked to hold forth on the really important topics of the day, few of them will be inclined to wax prolix over what they really care about, e.g. the question of Britney Spears' mammary authenticity or even to expound forthrightly on the state of local garbage collection.

(ital) Of course (end ital) people will say they will vote on the "important issues" like education or the environment. It sounds impressive and responsible to say you're worried about things like global warming or the trade deficit. (It's a similar phenomenon to the Hollywood stars who insist they are "passionate" about sap farmers in the Amazon, campaign finance reform and other impressive-sounding causes.)

And then there is the way these "man-on-the-street" questions are framed. There's an essentially pro-Democratic bias to the very idea of asking people what government should (ital) do. (end ital) The Democrats, after all, are the party of government-doing while the Republicans are the party of government-stopping.

This is not to say that average Americans aren't concerned about the weighty issues. But, judging from the election, it's doubtful that they are intensely concerned with them, putting their trust in the candidates and the parties to handle the details of public policy. This might be a good thing. Intensely concerned electorates are composed of people with real problems or serious axes to grind.

Regardless, the events in Florida - however they turnout - will surely enhance the intense feelings of voters, but not on the issues. The partisan divide revealed in the election results was based largely on competing views of the other parties. Republicans can't stand the party of Clinton. Democrats don't like the party that beat up Clinton.

Until now, this animosity was merely background radiation, affecting the way people see the issues but not distorting them too much. But the longer both sides feel the other is stealing the election in Florida, the more likely such feelings across the nation will grow white-hot, melting the issues entirely.

That's why you shouldn't expect fights over the "issues" in the next four years. Just expect fights.

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