Having pulsated subliminally over the airwaves, the rats are now leaving the sinking ship.

At first glance, the news that a Republican National Committee ad for George W. Bush flashed the word ”RATS“ on the screen for a 30th of a second while the voice-over narrator was attacking Al Gore’s prescription-drug plan seems just the latest in a string of increasingly bizarre screw-ups which W.‘s once-vaunted campaign has committed. In fact, the ad (which the RNC yanked within hours of its revelation) is a morbid symptom of a deathly ill candidacy.

Candidates with real messages don’t go in for subliminal ones. And W. is tottering into mid-September with no viable message at all.

One of the telltale signs of a candidacy flirting with extinction is the public confession of its strategists that they‘re still trying to figure out the broad themes that their candidate should address. The classic example of such an eighth-inning identity crisis was the Dukakis campaign, where, two weeks before Election Day, the governor’s aides plastered butcher paper to the walls and filled it with lists of reasons why Dukakis was running for president and why voters should support him.

It‘s not the eighth inning yet, but the comments of Bush pollster Fred Steeper in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal fall so abysmally short of strategic certitude that you have to wonder if the butcher paper isn‘t far behind. ”We still don’t know what this election‘s about yet,“ Steeper said.

It was not ever thus, of course. Until the last night of the Democratic convention, the Bush campaign thought it knew exactly what this election was about. It could never be allowed to be a normal election, where voters made their decision chiefly on the issues, for the issues this year cut clearly in favor of the Dems. W. would win if the personal trumped the political — which, until recently, it did.

Thus, W.’s compassion was intended to convince swing voters, working-class women, and mothers particularly, that on such issues as education and health care, the differences between the candidates weren‘t all that great. On matters of morals and values, however, these voters would discern a considerable difference. A series of ”values“ questions put to voters by the Democracy Corps project over the past year showed voters — white voters particularly — preferring the Republicans to the Democrats on such questions as which party better understood the needs of parents and the task of strengthening families.

To the surprise of W.’s handlers and just about everyone else, Gore was doing a miserable job of connecting with those voters. On policy issues like support for schools, Gore had virtually no advantage over Bush; and on matters of personality, W. came off as a regular guy with regular values (the fact that he was a bit of a doof actually may have helped a bit), while Gore was seen (not necessarily wrongly) as a calculating stiff. In short, what the election was about, from the viewpoint of W.‘s handlers, was neutralizing the issues and having the voters choose between two guys and their values.

Over the past few weeks, however, precisely the reverse has happened. Gore has neutralized the ”personality and values“ issues and turned the election back into a choice between different public philosophies.

No wonder W.’s handlers are flummoxed. Polls taken before and after August 17 — the date of Gore‘s acceptance speech — almost read as if they had surveyed two different countries. If you compare, for instance, the Washington PostABC polling of September 6 with that of July 23, the percentage of voters calling Gore ”honest and trustworthy“ rises from 47 to 63, while the figures for Bush are essentially static — moving from 61 to 62 percent. Gore’s ”favorable“ rating has also risen to the same level as W.‘s — he’s at 59 percent, Bush is at 58. On the somewhat more pointed question of which candidate encourages ”high moral standards and values,“ it‘s a wash: Each pulls down 44 percent

While Gore has closed W.’s lead on personal and ”values“ issues, he‘s opened a wide lead on policy questions. In July, looking again at the PostABC polling, W. led Gore by 13 percent as the candidate best able to manage the budget; last week, Gore led Bush by 5 percent. In July, both were judged equally capable of dealing with education; last week, Gore led by 12 percent.

The numbers that matter most, of course, are those that show Gore surging into and then holding a slim lead since the night of his acceptance speech. In swing states where he’d long been trailing — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri — Gore now holds a narrow lead, and he‘s running even slightly ahead in a crucial state thought to have been solidly in W.’s corner, Florida.


How did the stumblebum campaign that Al Gore ran between the end of the primaries (March) and the advent of the convention (August) turn itself around? The rise of Al Gore began with the late-July hiring of Stan Greenberg as the campaign‘s new pollster — one who, in contradistinction to W.’s Fred Steeper, knows exactly what this election is all about.

This isn‘t the first presidential contest that Stan Greenberg has figured out. In 1992, Greenberg was Bill Clinton’s pollster, and it was he who helped develop a formula for winning back enough onetime Reagan Democrats to capture the White House. a Reconnecting with a wary white working class involved support for some policies — capital punishment, ending welfare as we knew it — that liberals loathed. It also involved support for other more progressive policies — chiefly universal health insurance — that no Democratic presidential nominee since George McGovern had dared espouse.

After the electoral debacle of 1994, though, Clinton and Greenberg had a parting of the ways. Clinton‘s new strategist, Dick Morris, acknowledged Greenberg had been right about the need to move to the center on crime and culture and the like, but he insisted that Greenberg had been wrong to think that Americans wanted any significant increase in government assistance with their economic dilemmas. Abetted by his allies in the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Morris tilted the ’96 campaign to a more upscale constituency — suburban soccer moms, who presumably wanted little more from the government than V-chips and school uniforms. Greenberg, meanwhile, went into a not-very-onerous exile: His clients included the African National Congress, Gerhard Schroeder, Ehud Barak and Tony Blair.

Until late July, however, they did not include Al Gore. Indeed, the veep had surrounded himself with policy people straight out of the DLC (chiefly, his policy capo, Elaine Kamarck), politics people more aligned with traditional Beltway interest-group liberalism (such as campaign manager Donna Brazile), and pollsters (first DLCer Mark Penn, then Harrison Hickman) from a range of perspectives. The result was a campaign that seemed to lack any strategic perspective at all: Gore‘s lieutenants couldn’t agree on whom they wanted to persuade about what. And as the Clinton prosperity rolled on, the DLCers grew even more insistent that upscale voters, ”wired workers“ and voters in the New Economy held the key to the Democrats‘ success.

As Clinton entered his second term, with Morris’ programmatic minimalism now official party gospel, Greenberg took increasing issue with the DLC‘s new line. With Harvard government and sociology professor Theda Skocpol, he convened a rolling series of seminars called the New Majority Project. Progressive academics, editors, columnists, activists and pollsters came together on several occasions over the past half-decade to plumb the continuing lack of working-class support for the not-very-populist Democratic Party. I attended the first such discussion back in early 1997, where voting analyst Ruy Teixeira quite properly savaged the DLC’s claims that Clinton had assembled a lasting majority. Teixeira had recently left the brief employ of the DLC‘s think tank when he’d been unable to persuade his colleagues to pay heed to the numbers. Will Marshall, who then as now heads the think tank, was a guest at this session, and when Teixeira finished making his case, Marshall took a deep breath and said, ”Ruy — how did you ever stand working for us?“

Teixeira, Skocpol and Greenberg have all opposed the DLC‘s market-oriented vision for upscale Democrats. In her book The Missing Middle, which appeared shortly before the Democratic Convention, Skocpol complains that both Clinton and Gore ”have stopped talking about the forgotten middle class,“ and she notes that the Children’s Health Insurance Program that they champion — a kind of New Democrat eyedropper rationing of health coverage — fails to insure the vast majority of uninsured children. For Skocpol, working-class parents must be at the center of any successful strategic and moral Democratic Party vision. ”The middle has been left outside contemporary social policy debate,“ she laments, ”because neither right nor left has much to say about the real-world situation of the vast bulk of ordinary American families who live by wages and salaries, espouse moderate social values and struggle with the new stresses that families now must face.“

In his new book, America‘s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, co-written with political scientist Joel Rogers, Teixeira explicitly attacks an article by Gore policy maven Kamarck on the political centrality of the ”new Learning Class.“ On the contrary, Teixeira insists, fully 71 percent of voters in the ’96 presidential race were not college graduates. Even amid the current boom, median family income in America this year is roughly $47,000. At that level, a new entitlement covering grandpa‘s prescription drugs looms somewhat larger than a further reduction in the capital gains tax.


Finally, in the August 28 issue of The American Prospect, which appeared just before the Democratic Convention, Greenberg, writing with his daughter Anna (an assistant professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School), came up with his own assessment of the Democrats‘ dilemma. Like Teixeira and Skocpol, the Greenbergs see the key swing constituency as ”working mothers and fathers, especially those with modest means.“ They note that, partly as a result of the Lewinsky affair, the Democrats poll dismally among these voters on questions of which party better helps families or is more linked with ”faith in God.“ The parents in these families ”worry about the breakdown of rules and discipline“ — as well as how they’ll make ends meet.

Read Skocpol, Teixeira and Rogers, and the Greenbergs, and you come away not only with a concrete theory of the election, but a pretty good roadmap to the Gore campaign since early August, with Greenberg on board. To the white working-class parents a in, say, Michigan or Ohio, those distant or impersonal companies that ration their health care, profit off their own parents‘ medications, raise the price of heating oil in winter, or sell violent video games to their kids — all these institutions — require a president who’ll keep them in check. Once you accept Greenberg‘s, and Skocpol’s, and Teixeira‘s contention that these middle-income Midwesterners are the key to the election, then Joe Lieberman’s davening and Al Gore‘s newfound populism both fall into place.

Word of Greenberg’s new employment didn‘t get around until midway through the convention, which is why Gore’s acceptance speech — specifically aligning himself with the working middle-class struggling to makes ends meet — so totally stunned the DLC. Lieberman, after all, had been the DLC‘s chairman for years, and DLC president Al From clearly viewed the convention as the occasion to assert the DLC’s dominion over the party for years to come. The only cloud on the horizon, he wrote in the summer issue of the DLC‘s magazine, The New Democrat, was ”a new political analysis that has gained favor in left-leaning circles. The essence of that analysis, articulated in a new book by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers, is that the swing voters in America are downscale, non-college-educated, working-class whites. . . . We need to resist the latest effort to divert Democrats from the New Democratic course.“

From’s reaction to Gore‘s speech, then, was little short of apoplectic. ”Attacking oil companies and pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies will not win elections, I guarantee you,“ he guaranteed journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts in their August 22 New York Daily News column. After his initial outbursts, From has largely stayed silent, surely because Gore’s polling not only jumped immediately following his speech, but jumped chiefly among the very white working-class voters whose importance From had discounted. Among white men making between $20,000 and $50,000 annually, Gore‘s support increased by 9 percent between late July and early September in the Post polls; in the Zogby-Reuters poll, he went from trailing W. in early August by 19 points among voters with no more than high school diplomas to leading W. by 9 among the same group last week. (For that matter, a late-August Harris Poll showed 74 percent support for Gore’s attacks on HMOs and oil, tobacco and drug companies.)

The DLC isn‘t the only wing of the party that’s had trouble with the applied Greenbergism of the new-model Gore campaign, of course. The Anti-Defamation League has grumbled, quite justifiably, about the public religiosity of Joe Lieberman. Civil libertarians are just beginning to react to Gore‘s support for marketing restrictions on the entertainment media’s exploitation of children. (A ferociously complex issue: One could certainly make a Marxist case that capitalism in its developing stages exploits children as workers, and in its advanced stages exploits children as consumers.) Nonetheless, largely as a result of his neo-populism, Gore has been able within the past week to win the hitherto elusive support of both Teamsters and turtles (more precisely, the Teamsters executive board and Friends of the Earth). The teamsters and turtles — and, for all I know, Greenberg — may justifiably harbor doubts about the actual populism of a President Gore. But plainly, with both the core and swing voters whose support Gore needs, his newfound populism resonates.

The other factor making Gore more palatable to progressives is the continually growing surplus, which is almost forcing him (as it is forcing Gray Davis on the state level) to embrace new government programs unthinkable in the dark days of the deficit. Indeed, the total cost of Gore‘s new programs — expanding preschool, prescription-drug coverage, and the like — is roughly the same as W’.s tax cut. Unfortunately for W., respondents to last week‘s Post poll ranked cutting taxes ninth in importance out of 16 issues — well behind assistance for schools and medical care, and the other causes on which they place greater emphasis and with which they’d prefer Al Gore to deal. With the election now increasingly turning on issues, W.‘s tax cut — 43 percent of which goes to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans — looks increasingly like the most bone-headed major proposal a presidential candidate has run on in years. Think of it, though, as GOP identity politics: With the death of communism, the drop in crime, the elimination of the deficit and the end of welfare, cutting taxes, particularly those on the rich, is the Republicans’ last defining issue. Simply to abandon it is tantamount to their admitting that the era of small government is over.


Thus W.‘s dilemma: He can’t profitably attack Al Gore on the issues, and with Gore‘s personal credibility now on a par with his own, the kinds of personal attacks he’s been leveling at Gore don‘t carry much weight either. (”If we can’t trust Al Gore on debates, how can we trust him on anything?“ one recent Bush commercial rather plaintively asked.) Gore‘s commercials betray no such strategic desperation. He’s smooched with Tipper and prayed with Joe and chastised the HMOs. Or, to quote the concluding words of one Gore spot that went up in 17 swing states just after the convention, ”Al Gore. Married 30 years. Father of four. Fighting for us.“

Now, that‘s a campaign that knows what this election is about.

LA Weekly