New Hempshire . . .

. . . as Paul Tsongas used to call it, actually meant something this year. I’m actually thinking of donating a little money to McCain — I’m still not sure who to vote for (I haven’t heard enough from him on the three most important domestic issues, education reform, Social Security reform and selection of federal judges) but I’d hate to see his campaign peter out for lack of funds (though it would be ironic). A fight to somewhere close to the finish (which can only happen if there’s a split decision on March 7) would, I think, be good for the party, particularly since Bush (if he wins) has enough cash on hand to keep the machine rolling (unlike Dole in 1996, who was forced into a quiet period after the primaries while Clinton and his media allies filleted him on tobacco and abortion). The bad primary fights are the ones you get when one candidate has no chance, like Forbes or Buchanan. Bradley may be like that, hammering Gore on integrity and ethics rather than engaging an accross-the-board issues debate. But Bush and McCain both need to keep one eye on November, and both fancy themselves civil-minded moderates, so there’s only so bad it will get.
I don’t think Bush will actually move to the right on any issues, as the pundits warn — he’ll just have to learn better how to sell the conservative agenda. If he can’t do that he can’t win anyway. He actually is a real conservative already — “compassionate conservative” is BS, I’ve always thought he should call it “smiley face conservative,” because it’s about explaining the existing agenda’s virtues (i.e., why conservative policies are a better deal for the middle class and the poor) through a nonthreatening candidate, rather than actually changing policy (which is fine with me).
Gore-Bradley, by contrast, is still highly unlikely to be a real race, but it could be a long ugly fight like Dole-Forbes in 1996 and Clinton-Brown in 1992. Bradley has a lot of cash and he’s showing signs of being bitter enough at the direction of his party to stay and fight long after Gore has effectively clinched. Having Gore constantly taunting him for being a quitter can’t help the case of people who want him to bail out early for the sake of party unity. Gore has already moved left but I don’t think he’ll really move any further — but he could take some punishment by the unprecedented spectacle of a fellow Democrat breaking the code of silence on the ethics of Clintonism.
The real message of New Hampshire, as I see it, is that the strong showing of McCain and Gore and the late revival by Bradley proves one thing: the voters are NOT tired of negative campaigning or of strongly and specifically worded appeals to integrity and combat. Bush’s just-the-agenda, forget-the-last-8-years strategy captured the popular imagination in the summer of 1999 because people were sick to death of arguing about impeachment, but a year later the voters are looking for someone to explain how we reached that nadir in the first place and how to avoid a repeat, not of the acrimony, but of the scandal itself. The Clintonites argued that the only really bad thing was GOP insistence on “divisiveness,” on casting judgment (this is the type of logic that says high crime statistics mean cops are arresting too many people). Contrary to what they would have you believe, I think that once people moved past the don’t-rock-the-boat stage of opposing impeachment during a market boom they began to recognize that this was not a morally neutral argument — that there is some virtue in alarming people when their government has grown corrupt and its leaders too accustomed to the habits of deceit. To voters concerned about such issues, Bush’s conscientious objector status on the ethical issues comes accross as unduly timid. McCain roared ahead in the polls late in large part, I think, because he promised GOP conservatives that he would go after Al Gore on Gore’s dubious honesty (don’t forget that McCain voted to remove the president from office), while Bush increasingly looked vulnerable to the kind of one-sided smear campaigning that is being used against Bradley. Bringing out dad — who never did learn to fight back against Bill Clinton — only underlined that.
This is an email I sent to friends on February 2, 2000.