Why we are where we are (September 13, 2000)

This is a slightly edited-for-publication version an admittedly overwrought email I wrote to friends during the lowest ebb of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign. For perspective, it’s an interesting look back:
[D]o you have any idea what the Bush campaign is thinking? I mean, this has been a brillantly run campaign — up to a point — but it is really starting to seem that the people in charge (maybe the candidate himself) don’t understand what their real assets are. Let’s review a little history that we all recall:
In the primaries, those of us who supported McCain were told that Bush was preferable because he would sell the conservative agenda, just with a happier face than in the days of Newt. When McCain failed to trumpet his own conservative themes — attacking the cultural-conservative base when he should have been pressing the fact that he had a more conservative record than Bush on school choice and Social Security reform — I was left with no choice but to believe Bush.
I may not agreee with every particular but the platform is a thing of beauty, and when he gives speeches on its central themes — we can all recite the priority list of Education, Tax Cuts, Social Security Reform, Medicare Reform, and Rebuilding the Armed Forces — the candidate himself explains them extremely persuasively. In Texas, Bush zeroed in on his core issues and wouldn’t be led astray or goaded into going negative.
Let’s review:

1. In the primaries, Bush zeroed in on his core issues, tossing out the occasional bone on stuff like campaign finance reform, and he used enough negative attacks to get his opponent’s goat. He consistently lost on the character and personality fronts, coming off as Steve Forbes with a twang, but won on the issues.
2. In the spring and summer, he used a basic strategy that was easily visible:
+Stay on the core issues and flesh out the details
+Throw a bone to the media on other issues just enough to look interested
+Use negative personal attacks on Gore as a there-you-go-again shield, not a sword
3. At the convention, Bush-Cheney kept the focus on the economic-conservative issues — building a positive case for the agenda rather than attacking on cultural issues — and laid out the broad brush idea that character, integrity and leadershipo were lacking in this Administration and needed to be restored. The “risky scheme” attack line that was Gore’s staple all summer was decisively disabled.
At this point, Bush was sitting pretty, but waiting to see how Gore would respond. My sense, and the sense of a great many conservatives, was that Bush had just a few tasks left:
+Stay zeroed in on the core issues
+Start to draw together the central theme of the platform: empowering individual choices as opposed to Washington bureaucracy
+Respond successfully to whatever new Al Gore emerged at the Convention
+Prepare for debates
4. The Democratic convention brought out some vulnerabilities Bush missed — the Ted Kennedy/Jesse Jackson appearances in favor of old-time liberalism, Bill Clinton’s thinly veiled call for a return to Great Society liberalism — but the key points were:
+Lieberman, and the infamous kiss, helped remind people that Gore isn’t a corrupt guy in his private life
+Gore promised to make the campaign about using Washington to curb abuses by “powerful forces” such as big corporations
+Gore let the whole world know what we knew already: the Democrats would make healthcare the central issue of their campaign
You can add in a fourth factor, which I (living on the East Coast) had not even known about until I read it online this week: Gore was running harsh negative ads attacking Bush all summer in critcial markets, ads which the national media chose to ignore because they don’t air in NY, LA, or DC. Apparently Bush didn’t even respond, a la Bob Dole.
This left Bush with a few basic goals:
As before,
+Stay zeroed in on the core issues
+Prepare for debates
+Draw a sharp contrast, now that Gore could less afford to be a moving target, between Bush’s core theme of individual empowerment and Gore’s core theme of centralizing more power under Al Gore
+Keep using Gore’s dishonesty as a shield
+Point out Gore’s ties, on policy issues, to the Mondale-Dukakis-Ted Kennedy Democrats: his record as the biggest-spending congressman of his era, his current promises of a trillion and more in new spending and one-size-fits-all Washington mandates, and his promise to appoint Supreme Court justices like the most liberal, out-of-touch, soft-on-crime meddling judges ever to sit the bench.
+Come up with a good Medicare/drug bill in response to Gore, and explain why it fit Bush’s general themes and why Gore’s fit with his theme of more power for Al Gore
+Start running ad blitzes in key markets on Bush’s core themes and on Gore’s liberal record and liberal promises
5. Bush did the last of these well in his launch speech, but otherwise we have seen everything from Bush but what he needs to be talking about. He’s running attack ads on character — those should be Bush’s defense lines. He’s getting caught up talking about meta-politics issues (the tenor of ads, the timing of debates) that have no relevance. He’s announcing new spending initiatives and the like when he should be talking about nothing but his core issues and how they differ from Gore’s record and proposals on the issues. When Gore makes a proposal, Bush doesn’t say it’s a bad idea — he says I’ll do the same but the only difference is I have leadership to get it done and he doesn’t.
Here’s a classic example of missing an opportunity — have you seen Bush’s new slogan — “Real Plans for Real People”? What genius dreams this crap up? Who exactly is the target audience that’s supposed to say, “Oh, now you’re talking to me” People don’t need to be told they are real, and only a politician far removed from the fray would even use the phrase “real people.” It’s such an elitist term, implying that the speaker admits to not being one of them. My slogan, if I was running this? “Giving Power Back To People.” Succinct, has enough alliteration to keep whoever in the campaign loves that stuff happy, is the Bush philosophy — or at least the Bush platform’s philosophy — in a nutshell, and rebuts the Gore theme (“I’m for the people, not the powerful”) perfectly becuase Gore’s real theme is taking power from any and all institutions that would be bulwarks against federal hegemony (DeToqueville, anyone?) and giving that power to Al Gore.
Bush is supposedly surrounded by bright, conservative people including the architects of the platform and of his Texas victories. Yet you keep seeing these anonymous quotes suggesting that Bush’s people think this is a campaign about character (ie, they want to model Bush after the Dole ’96 campaign). They just don’t seem to believe that the American people will be with them on the issues if they lead them there. I believe that and I think most rank and file Republicans do too. Newt Gingrich believed it, and in 1994 at least that made all the difference. The greatest GOP victories of recent history all depended on (1) laying out a simple, easy-to-follow agenda (1980, 1994) and (2) attacking the other side, not personally but on the overall policy themes (1984, 1988).
Everyone has bad stretches, and the media isn’t helping (surprise surprise). But the solutions to Bush’s problems are not only remarkably simple, they are the ways he got to where he was in mid-August; the only element he needed to add (besides keep doing what he does) is to slam Gore as a LIBERAL and explain in a few basic particulars why. Nearly everyone I meet and nearly all the commentators in the conservative press seem to understand what Bush needs to do. Even many liberal commentators have caught on.
Persuading people is not rocket science; it’s what we as lawyers do for a living, and it’s frustrating to see someone miss such obvious points. You win political campaigns in two ways: controlling the agenda, so the other side has to talk about your issues on your terms, and controlling the turnout. The specter of a Clinton third term should help a lot on the latter, and there are indications that groups like the NRA will too. But on the former, we are so close to winning — if only Bush would go there, by sticking doggedly to his core themes and arguing that Gore is too liberal, and running ads that stay on that message. Why is this happening?