Panic Time

Now is the autumn of our anxiety

Made dangerous bummer by this son of Bush

Panic is now permissible. If the elections were held as of this week‘s press time, the likeliest outcome would be a GOP trifecta, with George W. Bush taking the White House and the Republicans clinging narrowly to both houses of Congress. The only time in the past 70 years when the nation has had to endure such a Republican united front was 1953-54 -- the first two years of the Eisenhower administration, the height of McCarthyism. There’s no danger of a red-scare recurrence in 2001, but the W. generation has moved well to the right of its redbaiting forebears on matters like Social Security -- which was fine by Old Joe McCarthy, but which W. is itchin‘ to privatize.

(And in 1953-54, at least, there was a liberal majority on the Supreme Court, whose members included Earl Warren, William O. Douglas and Hugo Black. Today, the real liberals on the court include -- uh -- well, the court isn’t quite what it used to be.)

Is everything cheerless and bleak? In the past couple of days, some national polls have started inching back toward Al Gore, who‘s been trailing the Gov in every single such poll since the aftermath of the first debate. This Tuesday, the Washington Post poll had the race as a dead heat, and the CNN tracking poll -- the jumping bean among this year’s surveys, invariably magnifying what the other polls see as small shifts -- actually put Gore in a one-point lead. In Gore‘s case, apparently, absence makes the heart grow fonder: The further we get from those disastrous debates, the more Al’s abrasiveness recedes into the gloaming.

But when we look at the contest state by state: Yow! While Al has been able to stay afloat in Florida, his margins have been slipping just about everywhere else. Gore still has some states in his lock box, but even there, his margin has slumped. (A 30 percent edge in New York has eroded to 11 points in one poll.) In some swing states (West Virginia, Arkansas and his own Tennessee), he‘s either just ahead or just behind because he’s lost votes to Bush. In other swing states (Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Maine), he‘s lost so many votes to Ralph Nader that he’s running even at best. And in some big states where no more than two points separates Bush and Gore (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Illinois), Gore needs to pick up the votes of both prospective Naderites and dithering moderates.

And how stands California? In every index, our fair state has slipped from ”Certain Gore“ to ”Leaning Gore“ -- but it may actually be closer than that. Gore‘s September lead of 9 percent has shrunk, depending on which poll you accept, to somewhere between 5 percent and 7 percent. On Tuesday, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released its new survey putting Gore’s advantage at a skimpy 5 percent. A Los Angeles Times poll on Wednesday put the lead at 7 percent. Both polls show Nader‘s numbers having risen, from 4 percent to either 5 percent (Los Angeles Times) or 6 percent (PPIC).

The PPIC numbers reflected those in the Democrats’ private tracking polls, which is why late last week, Garry South, Governor Davis‘ political consigliere, publicly implored the Gore campaign to step up its efforts here. South’s concern wasn‘t merely for Gore, but for all the other candidates and initiatives that Al the Anchor was dragging down. In the four critical House races where the Democrats could pick up Republican seats this November, the two Democrats who had leads in high-single or low-double digits saw their leads cut in half during the Great Debate Doldrums, and the two with leads in low single digits are now running even.

But the clearest evidence of California’s tightening actually comes from the Nader camp. On Monday afternoon, Citizens for Strategic Voting (a pro-Nader independent-expenditure campaign) announced that it would be placing ads for Ralph in newspapers in Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Colorado and California -- states where, as the press release noted, ”Vice President Al Gore or Gov. George W. Bush is strongly in the lead,“ and where a Nader vote thus couldn‘t hurt Gore. The campaign, which was to be unveiled in a Wednesday press-conference call with Naderites Michael Moore, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, is funded by Greg MacArthur, an heir to the MacArthur fortune.

But late Tuesday, the campaign announced it was having second thoughts about California. Acknowledging the new PPIC poll numbers, MacArthur told the Associated Press, ”I still think Gore is going to win California, but if the perception is such that it’s a tight race, then that‘s the wrong market for me to be advertising in.“ Accordingly, the ads were pulled from the L.A. Times, and San Francisco’s Chronicle and Examiner, though they still were to appear in two alternative weeklies -- the San Francisco Bay Guardian and this paper (in this issue). In California, apparently, even Naderites are nervous about urging an actual vote for Ralph.

The chief culprit behind all Gore‘s troubles has been Gore himself. Presidential debates provide American voters with their one chance to see if either or both candidates meet the living-room test: With whose television presence will they feel comfortable over the next four years? On this, Al came in a little higher than the guy who used to sell Ginsu Knives. Just as critical, in the debates as in much of his campaign, Gore said little that excited progressives, and more that appalled them. Mumbling on gun control, pandering on the death penalty, (not even suggesting that W. should have tried DNA testing before executing an entire brigade of death-row inmates), chastising W. for not proposing a sufficiently large Pentagon budget, oozing calculation, showing no conviction -- Gore must have driven (at least provisionally) a couple million voters into Nader’s arms.

But the Bush campaign deserves some credit, too. Normally, the appeal of its standard-issue Republican attack on big government would be more than matched by that of the Democrats‘ campaign for specific popular programs, like prescription-drug coverage. Throughout the debates, however, Gore’s manner so muddled his message that W.‘s anti-government rants took their toll.

Moreover, the Bush campaign has been airing commercials charging that Gore’s prescription-drug subsidies will force seniors into one ”big government“ plan. The notion is ludicrous; seniors can always refuse to accept the subsidies, just as they‘re free to decline Medicare. The campaign is really the Son of Harry and Louise -- the hospital industry’s ad campaign against the Clinton health proposal of 1994, which depicted the plan as eliminating consumer choice when it actually expanded it. As with so much else in this campaign, however, the media have declined to focus on this new mega-distortion from Incurious George.

In the campaign‘s closing two weeks, Gore must focus on potential Nader voters no less than possible Bush people. This week, he is on a Bring-’Em-Back-From-Ralph tour -- trooping from one small state with a big Nader vote to the next, stressing his bona fides on the environment and the economy. On Monday, he visited the Portland, Oregon, home of a woman whose company makes and markets Oregon Chai. Short of meeting with a grower of industrial hemp, it‘s hard to imagine a deeper penetration behind Naderite lines.

Part of Gore’s problem is that Nader is doing best in the states of the Great White North -- states hugging the Canadian border that were among the few to vote not only for Bill Clinton, but also for Michael Dukakis in ‘88. Washington, Oregon and Minnesota were, and remain, among the whitest and most progressive of states, experiencing little of the racial tensions and white backlash that sent other states spiraling rightward from the ’60s through the ‘80s. Washington and Oregon are also states where the environmental movements loom larger than anywhere else -- in each case, not only in the state as a whole but in the state’s progressive movement. They are states with among the lowest poverty rates and the most generous levels of social provision: They have the highest state minimum wage, and Oregon is the only state except Hawaii with a policy of near-universal health insurance.

Thus, a dilemma for Gore. In Illinois, say, or Missouri, Gore can argue to progressives that hiking the federal minimum wage and raising the earned-income tax credit -- administration achievements that have helped create the lowest levels of Latino and African-American poverty ever -- are a legacy that he‘ll build on and W. won’t. In the mini-semi-Scandinavias of the Northern border states, though, these differences may seem less stark even to progressives, because they concern achievements that have long since been surpassed locally or affect people who mainly live elsewhere. What‘s obvious in Chicago or St. Louis is less so in Portland and Seattle. Within the left of the North, these issues are not, one assumes, out of mind, but they are frequently out of sight.


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