MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — The voters have spoken, and George W. Bush leaves New Hampshire looking like nothing so much as an Internet stock whose bubble has burst. It wasn‘t his current performance, his daily rounds as a candidate, after all, that prompted all those Republican donors, governors and congressmen to invest so heavily in the W. juggernaut. It was the expectation of future performance. W. was the sure thing, the bet that couldn’t go wrong. So what if his speeches sounded like so much elevator music? So long as W. was inevitable, the donations to his campaign kept pace with the higher end of the NASDAQ.
In the aftermath of Tuesday‘s primary here, W.’s stock has been downgraded from the inevitable to the merely plausible. John McCain‘s stunning victory is a body blow to the Bush campaign, but McCain has to work another miracle in South Carolina in a couple of weeks to be seen as a candidate with genuinely national appeal.
Democrats can only hope that McCain goes on to weaken Bush all across the nation — only not to the point where McCain actually wins the nomination. All of Al Gore’s attacks on Bushonomics, and how it will put our prosperity at risk, will be as naught against McCain, whose macroeconomic program is all but indistinguishable from Gore‘s. (In fact, one policy wonk I spoke with on Tuesday asserted that Gore’s tax cut is actually larger than McCain‘s.) That could reduce the general election to a referendum on the comparative characters of Gore and McCain — a thought that no Democrat would want to contemplate.
Bill Bradley did well enough on Tuesday to buy himself another month. The next Democratic contest comes on March 7, when the party has primaries in 14 states, including California, New York and Ohio. It’s still hard to see how Bradley will prevail. New Hampshire‘s demographics (white), economics (upscale and largely nonunion) and election laws (allowing independents to vote in party primaries) were all but tailored to the contours of his campaign — and still he did not win. Neither he nor Gore is likely to get much of a bounce out of New Hampshire, and Bradley needed the bounce far more than Gore, who will win the nomination unless Bradley can spark a firestorm during the next five weeks. Bradley closed fast in New Hampshire (he won 57 percent of the Democratic voters who didn’t pick their man until the last couple of days), but firestorms still seem beyond his capacity.
Besides, one firestorm per state seems enough, and John McCain has all but burned this place down.
Though a number of his Republican Senate colleagues plainly detest him, as do many prominent Republicans in his very own Arizona, McCain has emerged from New Hampshire as the man you can‘t really dislike. He goes to Portsmouth and tells his listeners that he might close down their naval shipyard if he becomes president, and he carries Portsmouth anyway. His life story — most particularly, his time in a North Vietnamese POW camp — inoculates him among conservatives. Moreover, he is a conservative: an Arizona Republican in the Goldwater tradition. Unlike Goldwater, however, he not only has staked out the center, but also makes the occasional odd noise that could, with a strange breeze blowing and the stars aligned just so, even make him palatable to voters who are left of center.
His signature issue, campaign-finance reform, has support across the political spectrum. He rails, in his best Eisenhower manner, against wasteful military spending (something that only military heroes can get away with). Like George W., he says he wants merit pay for teachers, but unlike George W., he makes it clear that that should only follow a considerable, across-the-board raise throughout the teaching profession.
Worse yet, he doesn’t even seem anti-government. He attacks Bush for failing to devote the surplus to saving Social Security and Medicare (that is, he fully grasps the political appeal of Clintonian centrism). During last week‘s debate, another candidate was discussing levying taxes on e-commerce (which McCain, like any good Republican, opposes), and suddenly McCain blurted out, “Remember, it was government programs that invented the Internet.” That’s the kind of thing Al Gore says. That‘s the kind of thing people well to Al Gore’s left say. What‘s going on here?
Then there’s McCain‘s manner. Some of the time, he’s still a top-gun wiseass. Asked at his 114th New Hampshire town meeting, in Petersborough two days before the vote, whether he supports the legalization of hemp, he briskly says that he doesn‘t — then adds, “Good luck with your crop.” He calls the crowd’s attention to the assembled media (like they could miss them), introducing them as “Trotskyists and communists.” Trotskyists is a nice touch — as if he‘s actually studied their ideological gradations.
A number of McCain’s traveling campaign staffers hail from Southern California, and when I arrive for my day on the bus, it‘s apparent that they actually view me as a real-life almost-Trotskyist. When I tell Todd Harris, an L.A. homey who’s the campaign‘s New Hampshire press secretary, that I actually like some things about his candidate, a look of horror — part mock, part genuine — sweeps across his face. “Don’t say anything nice in the Weekly,” he implores.
As events would have it, I end up sitting on the bus next to Ken Khachigian, a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan administrations, who seems bent on disenchanting me. “Remember, McCain supported the contras, and SDI [Reagan‘s star-wars lunacy],” he points out helpfully. “He supports the Second Amendment. He’s down-the-line pro-business [that is, virulently anti-union].” Khachigian gives me a look that can only be taken to mean, “Is that enough? Should I go on?”
He needn‘t. Ultimately, McCain remains quite capable of turning a liberal’s stomach. During his Petersborough meeting, he speaks rapturously of visiting a classroom in a charter school, where the teacher was reading to her young charges from William Bennett‘s A Child’s Book of Virtues. Everything we know about the young John McCain suggests he would have gagged at these bromides, but now he recommends them to America‘s youth.
McCain’s top-gun shtick is only one part of his military repertoire. His campaign is also premised on his ability to mobilize the veterans‘ vote — New Hampshire and South Carolina having the highest percentages of service veterans of all the states — and Legion posts and VFW lodges dot his itinerary. After his Petersborough town hall, his caravan drives north to the hamlet of Franklin, in the rural north of the state, to the VFW lodge there. The vets have come out in force to welcome McCain, who’s more than ready for them. “I need you to go on one more mission,” he implores. “I need you to go down to the old soldiers‘ home and blow the cavalry charge again.” It’s a performance no one but McCain could pull off. Moreover, recounting his life in the military — and in North Vietnamese prisons — is one of the many ways, some subtle, some direct, in which McCain contrasts his readiness to become commander in chief with that of his chief Republican opponent. McCain‘s a grownup. Bush is Boy George.
If Bush staffers spent Tuesday night second-guessing their strategy, they surely must have pondered the wisdom of bringing W.’s parents into the state late last week. His arm around his son, Old George assured voters that “You can trust my boy. Our son won‘t let you down.”
As hugs go, this was a doozy — the most politically disabling embrace of the past several decades. Every image the Bush people have been working to dispel — the frat boy, born to the purple, who inherited rather than earned his position — was instantly called to mind. Contrast that to McCain, with his five and a half years in a POW camp — Lordy! If the race becomes a battle of biographies, Bush may as well chuck it right now.
It doesn’t help that Bush is selling a program — massive tax cuts — that nobody seems to be buying. It probably won‘t help if his campaign now points out that 35 of the 55 Republican senators have endorsed Bush rather than their Senate colleague from Arizona: That would only underscore McCain’s reformer bona fides. And it surely doesn‘t help that the candidate’s stump speech puts forth his “compassionate conservatism” in what‘s likely the most touchy-feely rhetoric ever heard in a presidential campaign.
Speaking to a dinner of Republican regulars in Keene, three nights before the election, Bush begins by apologizing for going on early. “I’m speakin‘ early,” he says, “so I can spend some time with my wife.” The most important task he and his wife undertake, he continues, “is to be a lovin’ mother and father to our twin daughters.” Later, as he is winding down, he assures the gathering that “I understand the power of the universal commandment to love thy neighbor as yourself.”
This is one lovin‘ fella, albeit with some screwy ideas about tax cuts. If the Bush campaign has a further core message, it has not yet surfaced. On the last day before the vote, his handlers restricted his appearances to several episodes of frolicking in the snow — with sleds, snowboards and the like. The day was constructed so that W. would not be in a position of actually having to say something.
Bush still has an overwhelming lead in money, endorsements and organization. When it comes to message, however, mum’s the word.
On the Bradley campaign, the words of the week were those of the prophet Hillel: “If not now, when?” The line pops up in some of Bradley‘s talks: If we can’t address our major social problems at this time of prosperity, when can we? Among his retinue of advisers and supporters, though, the line took on an altogether different meaning: When‘s he gonna hit back?
By late last week, the worm had begun to turn. To be sure, Bradley’s not a very adept counterpuncher: In his last debate with Gore, for instance, he passed up opportunities to point out that the Consumers Union had declared his health plan far preferable to Gore‘s, or that while Gore was flaying him for scrapping Medicaid, the Clinton health proposal of ’94 did precisely the same thing. Instead, he simply disputed Gore‘s honesty — a tactic that usually doesn’t go over nearly as well as demonstrating dishonesty.
It may have been clumsy, but it seemed to work. Among voters who made up their minds in the last several days, when Bradley had finally gone on the attack, Bradley picked up 57 percent of the vote to Gore‘s 41. Even so, the exasperation of his supporters in the campaign’s final days was palpable. As Bradley stepped up to the mike at his Get-Out-the-Vote rally in Manchester, one woman hollered, “Call him a liar!” Bradley laughed, and waved his hand as if swatting the suggestion away. In a triumph of message over manner, he‘s now become a kind of tribune for idealism. Among young voters in Tuesday’s election, the former senator clobbered Gore.
As Bradley remains fundamentally phlegmatic, Gore remains fundamentally robotic. Thanking Tipper in his Election Night victory speech, he clasped his hands to his heart. (Gore may be intelligible to the deaf even when his signer has gotten stuck in traffic.) His speeches have gotten better; they clearly rouse the party faithful. His town meetings are something else again. McCain points with pride to the number of town meetings he‘s held; Gore points with pride to the length of his. The night before the vote, he held one such marathon in Amherst, which — he gleefully recounted in election-night interviews — ran three hours and 35 minutes.
Gore’s idea of openness is to smother the questioner with his mastery of detail. In Amherst, one woman rose to complain that her health-insurance premium had been hiked by 19 percent, and what was Gore proposing to right such wrongs? Gore answered for at least 20 minutes with a careful dissection of his health-care plan — which has no provisions whatever for holding down HMO premiums. I say “at least” because 20 minutes was the point at which I left (with Gore‘s comment that “the cure rate for patients treated for depression is 88 percent” ringing in my ears).
Gore, of course, is the son of an old-style Southern senator, and there’s an academic paper just waiting to be written on Gore‘s rhetorical style and its debt to the filibuster.
The struggle between Bradley and Gore, which will be with us into March, has an ominous resemblance to those intraparty wars that regularly racked the party in its pre-Clinton days. In a word, Bradley has students and Gore has labor. Just as Bradley won a decisive victory among the young, Gore pulled down 62 percent of the labor vote.
This division is accentuated among the respective campaigns’ volunteers. Of the 1,800 activists walking and phoning for Gore in the campaign‘s final days, perhaps half came from labor. The AFL-CIO sent 40 full-time organizers into the state to work on the campaign. On the Saturday before the vote, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO sent a caravan of 150 members over the border to help the Veep. The New York–New England region of the United Auto Workers, which has thus far declined to endorse Gore due to its discontent with his free-trade proclivities, thoughtfully convened a four-day (Saturday through Tuesday) political-action workshop in Nashua, New Hampshire’s second largest city, where participants practiced their precinct-walking skills for whichever candidate they preferred. (About 85 percent of them, according to regional director Phil Wheeler, preferred Gore.)
But Gore‘s wasn’t the only campaign that relied on out-of-staters. At Bradley‘s Get-Out-the-Vote rally, volunteer Lisa Bromer told me she’d brought up 100 volunteers from Cambridge that weekend. At an outdoor Bradley rally held in Keene last Thursday — where the temperature, not counting the wind chill, was 5 above, and reporters were unable to take notes because the ink in our pens froze — the Bradley volunteer cheerfully passing out literature had come up 10 days earlier from the University of Texas. Bradley‘s state headquarters in Manchester was a swarming mass of kids — comparing notes, when they met, on whether they were just up there for a few days or had blown off the entire spring term.
Within these broad alignments, there were, to be sure, traitors to their class. I met one UAW activist who was walking a precinct for Bradley. There were students for Gore, but not a lot, and those who had come north had a distinctly establishment bent. The president of the college Dems on one Massachusetts campus told me he’d been up every weekend for months, and that he was excited by Gore‘s promise to revolutionize education. I didn’t find a single Bradley kid, by contrast, who claimed an affiliation with his or her college Democratic club.
Gore‘s campaign also boasted a Beltway Brigade. Within the space of a few minutes at one Gore headquarters, I met a State Department retiree and two guys on leave from the Department of Labor. Gore’s allegations that Bradley‘s health-care plan is fiscally imprudent seems to have trickled down to his nonlabor volunteers, who spoke with fervor about the need to wipe out the national debt. Couple this odd enthusiasm with the fact that Gore’s policy people are almost entirely veterans of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and it becomes clear that labor is not only the main source of activists in Gore‘s campaign, but also the only force within it that is pushing him in a liberal direction.
Last Saturday afternoon, the Gore and Bradley volunteers, all toting signs for their respective candidates, found themselves jockeying for position at a busy intersection in the center of Nashua. Their battleground — a town square called Library Hill — is dominated by a towering monument to Nashua’s Union Dead, an obelisk, erected in 1869, commemorating the local men who died in the Civil War.
At first, the union contingent — chiefly UAW members and retirees — occupied the high ground by the monument, while the Bradley kids stood across the street, both groups tooting their air horns and shouting for their candidate. “Who are we for? Al Gore!” yelled the Auto Workers. “Who‘s — correct? Bill Bradley,” one of the students riposted. Abruptly, a few UAW members crossed the street to the Bradley side, taking up positions for Gore where the line of students (most of them Yalies) ended. “You’ve colonized our corner!” one Yalie protested.
At this point, each group requested, and received, reinforcements from their respective headquarters. The Bradley kids crossed over themselves, colonizing the UAWGore corner.
To anyone familiar with Democratic Party history since 1968, the scene was a potentially tense one. In the days of the Vietnam War, and for decades thereafter, the labor movement of George Meany and Lane Kirkland had viewed two generations of campus activists with ill-concealed contempt, which the students more than reciprocated. Beneath the monument to the Civil War dead, all the ingredients of the Democrats‘ own civil strife were present.
But this was not George Meany’s labor movement, nor the student movement of 1969. Several of the Bradley Yalies colonizing the Gore corner were active in campus anti-sweatshop work; one told me he‘d been drawn to Bradley because of his support for raising the minimum wage. For its part, labor in the Sweeney era — and the UAW in particular — has avidly been reaching out to campuses. And so, between rival shouts for their two candidates, Morgan Guyton, a student at a Southern university, and Julie Kushner, who has overseen some successful UAW organizing campaigns among university teaching assistants, began to talk about the prospects for getting a drive going on his campus. Another student and another UAW member became engaged in an increasingly rueful discussion of how wrong both of their candidates were to support free trade and China’s admission to the World Trade Organization.
For on the one issue that fundamentally divides the Democratic Party — whether globalization should proceed as it has, or be subjected to more democratic political control — the dividing line doesn‘t run between the campaigns but within them. The divide, so to speak, is horizontal rather than vertical: In one camp stand the two candidates (who both wax rhapsodic about the New Economy), their policy advisers, their money men, all free-trade devotees; in the other camp are the volunteers who walk and phone and stand in town squares for their candidates. The Not-Quite-Battle of Library Hill ended in a shared realization that the party leaders and the party’s base (or bases) are moving in separate directions.
As they leave New Hampshire for the next primaries, one further thing should unite the Gore and Bradley volunteers: fear of John McCain. If this charismatic free trader and union buster blows by George Bush, neither Gore, Bradley, nor labor and students united, may be able to stop him.