Expect the mother of all negative campaigns in the 2000 presidential election
By Seth Gitell
JANUARY 10, 2000: One thing is certain about the upcoming general election for president: it will be ugly. Democratic and Republican operatives are already preparing hit packages on their opponents. Al Gore will be the leading perpetrator, but the top Republican candidates and the Democratic challenger will have to mix it up if they are to overcome the vice-president.
The benefits of such tactics have already become apparent. In the waning weeks of 1999, Gore's campaign received a boost when it went negative against Democratic challenger Bill Bradley. Gore and his allies have made reference to Bradley's "risky" medical plan and his support of "risky" school vouchers. Gore even stated in a debate that Bradley "opposed our participation in Bosnia," and backed up the claim by handing out newspaper articles -- when, according to columnist Robert Novak, those articles actually show Bradley criticizing Clinton for not doing enough to halt Serbian aggression.
And that's just Bradley, whose past in the Senate and the NBA doesn't suggest he has anything to hide. Think what Gore could do against Texas governor George W. Bush, whose past is slightly more checkered -- or against Senator John McCain, who was once implicated in a banking scandal.
During the eight years since Clinton's first presidential run, Democrats have honed a smooth attack-and-response team. This machine -- organized by James Carville in the winter of 1991-'92 -- is able to knock down negative assertions and carefully place damaging information about opponents into the media food chain. At a time when Gore is running out of money, (see "Going for Broke," News and Features, December 17, 1999), this network of Democratic supporters will be his best tool.
"While nobody has a copyright on rapid response, the Democrats have obviously perfected it by gaining so much hard-core experience," says one Democratic insider. "The Republicans have learned how to dish it out, but no one knows how to respond the way the Democrats do. Both sides will be able to dish it out, but only one side will be able to respond to it."
A top Democratic strategist says the effort, which is built around the assumption that Bush will be the GOP nominee, will focus on exposing the differences between the rhetoric and the reality of Bush's "compassionate conservatism." A central strategy of the Bush campaign is to boast about what a great state Texas is. But Democrats are planning to do to Bush what Bush's father did to former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign: use his home state against him. People are already saying that the plight of children in the Lone Star State may be Bush's Boston Harbor. "Texas is one of the worst places in America to raise your children, and women -- who will decide this election -- are going to run away from him in droves," says the Democratic strategist. "Kids on a Houston track team have to check the smog alert before they run on the track. Women aren't going to like that."
Steve Grossman, former chairman of the DNC, puts it this way: "George W. Bush has attempted to create a certain amount of mythology around himself -- that he is a centrist mainstream leader. It is my obligation, and the obligation of other people who speak, to continue to peel back layers of the onion to expose the core of Bush's ideology, which I continue to believe is outside of the values of centrist, mainstream voters."
The information put out there, Grossman adds, will be "timely, accurate, and relevant." Says Gore supporter Kiki Moore: "The real benefit here is there is a rapid-response machine that Democrats have learned as a tool, but that wouldn't have any effect unless they had the substance on the issues to back it up."
In fact, Democratic operatives point out, many of the arguments the party is developing work for both Gore and Bradley, even though they were prepared specifically with Gore in mind. Both Gore and Bradley have talked about core Democratic issues such as health care and Social Security during the primary debates -- and none of the Republicans even mentioned these topics.
For Gore, going ugly is a good strategy. His unfavorable ratings hover in the 40s, which would be deadly for most politicians. But Gore's strategists know that if he can energize his base and make the campaign so distasteful that most other Americans tune out, he can win the election. The Democratic core -- trade unionists, government workers, African-Americans -- will come out to vote against the Republicans. And if Gore makes Bush look really bad, suburban independents and other swing voters may stay home.
"Gore's going to run a very ruthless, nasty, negative campaign. He's going to destroy anybody that gets in his way," says Chris Matthews, host of CNBC's Hardball. "He's going to get the usual Democratic suspects -- the unions, the women, the gay groups, the teachers' union. [Then] he's going to nail Bush as some sort of danger. 'Bush is going to hemorrhage the economy.' 'Bush is a danger.' Gore does not want this to be a popularity contest."
Some on the right, still shell-shocked about Clinton's having survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal, are getting anxious. As well they should be. To date, the Bush campaign has been strictly second-rate. First there was the amateurish whispering campaign implying that John McCain was unfit to serve as president because of psychological damage inflicted during his time in Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps. Then there was the Andy Hiller foreign-policy pop-quiz fiasco. Since then, the Bush camp has shown an embarrassing lack of coordination and organization -- qualities that are crucial in forging a rapid-response team. Can you imagine Gore getting sucked into an Andy Hiller ambush? Even if he ever did stumble into a trap like that, he'd probably be able to answer the questions. Bush's bunch still has not been able to recover from the Hiller story, which has become a staple of late-night-talk-show jokes.
Jonah Goldberg, who emerged as a vocal Clinton critic during the Lewinsky scandal, says the Republicans will have to smarten up in order to win the election. "If Gore really does run out of money, they're not as dumb as Republicans were in 1996. They're going to say [Bush's huge campaign war chest is] a scandal," says Goldberg, whose mother, Lucianne Goldberg, is the one who urged Linda Tripp to record her telephone conversations with Lewinsky. "The Democrats are going to holler how this shows Bush is corrupt. [They'll say] this shows the Republican Party is just a Trojan horse for corporate interests."
If the Republicans allow this to happen, they'll be in trouble. "During the impeachment, the Republicans were so cowardly about it," Goldberg says. "They didn't put their faces out there very much. That's one reason I did so much television. This time I think they'll get their own talking heads out there."
Although much of the Democrats' focus is on Bush, McCain is not immune from these kinds of attacks either. In a Gore-McCain match-up, the vice-president's cronies would bring up everything from McCain's involvement in the Keating banking scandal to his divorce from his first wife. No matter that McCain's shame over his involvement with the failed S&L has led him to embrace campaign-finance reform, or that he has blamed himself for his failed marriage.
In some ways, however, McCain might be better able to fight back than Bush would be. McCain is ready to seize on dozens of ways he feels the Clinton-Gore administration has dishonored the nation. He has already lashed out at Clinton's "feckless, photo-op" foreign policy. Bottom line? He'll be ready to do battle if and when the time comes.
But other Republicans are going much further than that. "This is going to be really dirty," says one Washington-based conservative. "Bush is going to be really dirty. He's going to have to be. If Republicans think they can win this campaign being their usual white-shoe selves, they are wrong. These people will do anything they can to remain in power. Somebody on the Republican side is going to have to say that."
Victoria Toensing, a conservative Washington lawyer, agrees that Republicans are going to have to be more aggressive this time: "This will only stop when somebody is punished by it," Toensing states. "They figured out the money part," she continues, referring to the way the Bush campaign decided early on to decline federal matching funds and thus avoid campaign-spending caps. "Now they'll have to figure out the other."
Conservative insiders say that one of the smartest Republicans involved in negative-campaigning plans is Michael Collins, the upstate New York-born son of a union organizer, who is a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. Collins has been monitoring Democratic campaign events; when a New Hampshire woman asked Gore about the allegations of Juanita Broaddrick, who has said that Clinton raped her more than 20 years ago, Collins was on hand to take notes and publicize the exchange, in which the vice-president claimed he'd never seen Broaddrick's televised interview. "I've got the video and I've got the transcript," he says. "I started talking to the reporters, and none of them were going to be writing it. I ran my tape recorder of the debate and I made a transcript, and we put it out to the country." Collins thinks Gore can be held accountable for his time in the White House and that in the 2000 election, Republicans will win the day.
"The Democratic attack machine, this ruthless, taxpayer-funded spin machine, had its high point on the morning of the Senate vote on removing the president, and it's been downhill from there," Collins says. "It's going to continue to be downhill."
Collins attributes the newly aggressive Republican approach to RNC chairman Jim Nicholson, who he says conceived of many public-relations tactics that scored points for Republicans -- such as offering tours of the Washington hotel suite inhabited by Gore on the same day Gore launched his campaign in Tennessee.
In addition to the tactics of Collins and the RNC, Republicans think something else is different this time. Unlike Clinton, who is personally charismatic and has always been well liked by much of the American public, Gore is not personally popular. Plus, the Republicans are convinced that Bush's money advantage will save him when Gore is forced to rely on regular media coverage of debates and other campaign events. "Pitting free media against paid advertising is like going to a gunfight with a knife -- it doesn't worry me," says one Republican insider.
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