George W. Bush is the likely next president of the United States, and probably by more than a mere hair. While the current polls are ambiguous, there are a growing number of subjective, but strongly suggestive, indicia of a Gore defeat in the range of five to 10 percentage points.
Off the record, Democratic operatives sound more pessimistic and Republican operatives sound more optimistic than the current public polls would indicate. For the final two weeks, campaign schedules show Al Gore being forced to campaign in Tennessee, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia all supposedly safe Democratic states. Mr. Bush is still defending only Florida, while he is adding at least California, Minnesota and Illinois to his target states.
Even more pungent is the on the record finger-pointing emanating from the Gore camp a classic precursor to a losing campaign. Last Friday’s New York Times quoted several Clinton and Gore aides complaining about each other’s shortcomings. Revealingly, Mr. Gore was paraphrased by his own staff as saying he wants to run his campaign without President Clinton’s help win or lose. It sounds as if Mr. Gore is letting his ego get in the way of his judgment.
Most appalling were Gore pollster Stan Greenberg’s on-the-record lamentations this week in which he conceded that the debates cost Mr. Gore his lead; that Mr. Gore’s failures were “stylistic” and that Mr. Greenberg’s internal polls reflected limited opportunities to turn it around; their winning strategy had assumed they would use the debates to build on their lead.
Typically, as campaigns come to the finish line, the political professionals involved start protecting their reputations. Mr. Greenberg’s comments were a classic example of the genre. He was letting his fellow political mechanics, as well as future customers, know that his numbers and strategy were sound only Mr. Gore’s “stylistic” shortcomings are costing him the election. Political professionals are a ruthless breed. If one of them had been on the Donner Party, he would have been the first to ask to pass Baby Martha down his way.
Mr. Gore’s decision to give a series of “major policy speeches” in the last two weeks also is typical of losing campaigns that sense their current issues set is inadequate. Winning campaigns pick from established themes the messages to highlight in the closing day as Mr. Bush is doing.
Finally, in national campaigns Republicans usually beat their poll numbers by a point or two. And, in this election, Republican voters, impatient to end the detested Clinton/Gore years, are coiled to lurch into the voting booths, while Democrats loathe Mr. Bush far less. Add a point or two for slightly higher Republican turn out. In sum, if trends continue, one can probably add two to five points to Mr. Bush’s current three- to five-point lead in the polls thus putting his winning total at about five to 10 points.
So, it is time to consider what Mr. Bush’s electoral mandate will be, and how best to begin to implement it. Mr. Bush regularly has put forward positions on education, tax cuts, prescription drugs, HMOs, Medicare, defense, Social Security, providing leadership by ending Washington’s partisan bickering and returning honor to the White House.
Of course, whether the public has been motivated to vote for a candidate on any specific issue is never strictly provable. The public may have voted for the winner merely because voters liked the cut of his jib; but nonetheless he must seize a plausible mandate, rally the country to it and act decisively and promptly to enact it as Mr. Reagan did in 1981 with tax and spending cuts.
It seems to me that the central theme of the Bush presidency will be ending the partisan bickering, and the major issue he has uniquely called his own is reform of Social Security. Mr. Bush’s education and defense programs are useful, even important, but mundane. His various health proposals, taken for largely defensive reasons, are not yet fully formulated and are unlikely to gain a majority in the next Congress. His tax-cut proposal, while important is not historic. Moreover, being a traditional Republican issue, it would inevitably and instantly produce the usual partisan divisions.
But Mr. Bush’s Social Security proposal is historic, more or less ready to go, and will not necessarily break along strictly partisan lines. Of course Democrat congressional leaders Richard Gephardt and Tom Daschle and the unions will strongly oppose it. But, if Mr. Bush wins after so decisively grabbing the “third rail” of American politics, many moderate Democrats who know the policy makes sense and who feel privately guilty that their party has demagogued rather than reformed Social Security these last eight years, may be gettable.
The nation knows Social Security has to be reformed. And, if President George W. Bush were to put together an advisory committee of such senators emeritus as Pat Moynihan, Bob Kerry, Bob Dole and Howard Baker, he might have a fair chance of breaking the partisan gridlock while solving the pre-eminent domestic issue of the next 25 years. Having thus broken the spell of overt partisanship for a while, he could then proceed to his other agenda items. It won’t be easy, but he’ll never be politically stronger than he is Jan. 20 and it would be a decisive first step to greatness.