- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2000

The world seems to be divided between those who ignore history and are destined to repeat it and others who study history and seem destined to misapply its lessons. For those of us on the history-loving side of the divide, the current presidential election has inflamed us to plunder the treasure trove of presidential campaign histories.
It all started a couple of years ago when Karl Rove, Gov. George W. Bush's learned senior strategist, compared the Bush candidacy to William McKinley's 1896 campaign. This was almost brilliant. McKinley used the 1896 campaign to shift the Republican issue set from the successful, but then 40-year-old Civil War arguments, to new issues about prosperity in an upcoming new industrial century. The campaign gave us the "full-lunch pail" slogan.
Mr. Rove was right to see that the issues we have been fighting over since World War II were stale and due for replacement. The only problem with that historical analogy was that Mr. Bush didn't have a vibrant, compelling new vision to replace the old war horse issues of the past half century (Mr. Bush is not alone. Neither party has yet come to such a new vision.) So, as we currently watch Team Bush still searching for a persuasive issue, the 1896 analogy falls flat.
Next, chronologically, the famous 1948 Truman/Dewey election was recently presented as a possible analog to this election by Paul Gigot, the Wall Street Journal's Pulitzer prize-winning columnist. His point was that Mr. Bush was beginning to look like Dewey in that they both assumed that their Democratic opponent was a sure loser; thus, they could win by leisurely and overconfidently strolling toward November. (Incidentally, 1948 and 2000 were the last two times the Republicans held their convention in Philadelphia.)
While the historical settings of 1948 and 2000 are utterly different (1948 was bad times both economically and abroad, today all is peace and prosperity and contentment), this may be the most compelling analogy; not because Mr. Bush has had a few Dewey moments, but because Mr. Gore, like Truman, was the incumbent who used almost violent rhetoric to call for change.
If Mr. Gore wins this election it will be because he counterintuitively ran as a quasi-incumbent against the status quo in seemingly complacent good times. What makes this strategy almost inscrutable is that Mr. Gore is also running as the candidate who can best maintain the status quo's peace and prosperity. This Gore strategy echoes Ronald Reagan's mid-1980s canny rebuttal to those who wanted more change: "We are the change."
A couple of months ago, I was one of the early analogizers of the Kennedy/Nixon 1960 campaign to the current one. Then, too, a smart and able if shifty and unloved vice president was trying to succeed to the presidency after eight years of peace and prosperity. Then-Vice President Nixon's challenger (John F. Kennedy) was the charming son of a powerful political player, but was better known for being likeable than for liking heavy policy discussions. Then, too, the vice president was believed to be the more formidable debater, but was having trouble getting out from under the shadow of the president. Kennedy, of course, won a close election on the theme, "we can do better." The years 1960 and 2000 were also the last two times the Democrats held their convention in Los Angeles.
This analogy looked better in July, when I wrote it than today, because Mr. Gore has, amazingly, become likable. (If Mr. Gore is likeable, there is hope for all of us.) And, also amazingly, Mr. Gore, more effectively than Mr. Bush, has carried, so far, the idea that we can do better. The 1960 comparison is also historically inapposite in that Mr. Gore isn't as smart as Nixon, Mr. Bush isn't as charming as Kennedy, and God knows Mr. Clinton is no Eisenhower. But this may yet prove to be the correct historical comparison if Mr. Bush can regain the mantle of change, while debunking Mr. Gore's flamboyantly misleading public persona.
The Democrats' favorite historical analogy has been 1988 Bush vs. Dukakis on the appealing precedent of a sitting vice president being 17 points down in August, coming out from under his president's shadow, and going on to win.
While the polling statistics currently give this analogy plausibility, the Clinton/Reagan comparison is deranged. By 1988 70 percent of the public loved Mr. Reagan, while today, almost 70 percent of the public is morally repulsed by Mr. Clinton. While Mr. Gore has accomplished some separation from Mr. Clinton, the public's moral revulsion of Mr. Clinton still overhangs this election.
So, with a scant seven weeks before the election, what does history teach us? We should learn, anew, that nothing is inevitable. History is there to be made by men with the spittle and cunning to craft it. Interim polling datum isn't destiny; character, vision and conviction are.

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