Two defining moments occurred during the second presidential debate. The first came when moderator Jim Lehrer asked George W. Bush how the people of the world should view the United States. “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us,” Bush answered. “If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” The answer was striking because it not only made sense as foreign policy, but it also reminded the public of how Bush would have them see the difference between himself and Al Gore.
The second key moment involved a question about racial profiling and civil rights, which is Democratic turf. Bush neatly segued onto his own turf: “Let me tell you where the biggest discrimination comes: in public education when we just move children through schools. My friend Phyllis Hunter’s here. She had one of the greatest lines of all lines. She said, ‘Reading is the new civil right.’” Gore would eventually score points against Bush on his Texas record involving hate crimes and children’s health, but Bush had already controlled the damage.
Just a few hours after the debate, hostilities broke out in the Middle East. A third debate lay ahead. Either of those events, or something else wholly unpredictable, could have seismic effect on the presidential race. Politics are unpredictable and ephemeral. But for one night, at least, Bush had altered the political landscape. The adroitness of his responses, and the fact that they appeared to be totally uncalculated, was an indication that he may finally be on the way to overcoming one of his biggest weaknesses—a longstanding inability to master the art of political communication.
To understand just how far Bush has come, go back to the Sunday evening before Thanksgiving last year, when Bush made a decision, little noticed at the time, that would become more revealing as the months passed. He attended a memorial service for the victims of the Texas A&M bonfire, which had collapsed in the early hours of the morning, but he opted not to speak, giving as his reason that he did not want to politicize such a solemn and tragic event. It was a decision born of noble impulse, but one that overlooked an aspect of governing so fundamental as to be part of the definition of leadership: In a crisis people want to know that their leader cares about their problems.
This was the George W. Bush that America would see throughout most of the presidential race. On the one hand he was a good guy who wanted to do the right thing. On the other he couldn’t find a way to convey his ideas to the public—or even to convey that he had ideas. If his personality had been less forceful, he would have fallen hopelessly behind Gore weeks ago. If his ability to communicate were greater, he would have wrapped up the race by now. Instead, the outcome is likely to remain in doubt until election night.
Some elections are close because both candidates are strong. Such was the case in 1960, when John F. Kennedy faced Richard Nixon. Some elections are close because the candidates are weak. Unfortunately, that has seemed to be the case this year. The huge swings in the polls between the first and second debates indicate a mass indecision on the part of the American people. Neither Gore nor Bush has been able to overcome his shortcomings. Even as late as the second debate, Gore was still trying on personas as if they were shirts. For all his good moments, Bush still had some bad ones, as when he was pressed on single-sex marriages. “I’m not for gay marriage,” he began, and this time he never really reached out to people—unlike running mate, Dick Cheney, who said in response to a similar question during the vice-presidential debate, “[W]e live in a free society, and freedom means freedom for everybody. We shouldn’t be able to choose and say ‘you get to live free’ and ‘you don’t’.”
The ability to elevate a discussion does not come naturally to Bush. Yet it is the one weapon that he must add to his arsenal before he can reach his full potential as a political leader. He doesn’t have to change his opinions. He can still be for capital punishment or against same-sex marriage. Most people don’t expect a politician to agree with them 100 percent of the time—but they do want to feel that the politician is aware of their concerns 100 percent of the time. With Bush, the hard edge too often comes first, the concern much later, if at all.
At the start of the campaign, it seemed as if Bush would be different. Before the primary elections, he successfully defined himself as a compassionate conservative. It was a great line, because it told voters what kind of person he was and had the additional virtue of being credible—especially after he told the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives last fall not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. With his two-word slogan, Bush not only distinguished himself from the hard cases in his own party, the Newt Gingriches and the Tom DeLays, but also alluded to his emphasis on educating disadvantaged students and his ability to form coalitions with Democrats.
But over the months, Bush undercut his own slogan with a series of missed opportunities and mixed messages. At Bob Jones University he failed to distance himself even incrementally from the school’s policy against interracial dating or its view of Catholics. When the Texas system of capital punishment drew fire, Bush defended it, despite stories about inadequate counsel for capital murder defendants (including one lawyer who fell asleep in court). He could have indicated concern in any number of ways, such as calling for a legislative committee to study the role of DNA evidence, which some Republican lawmakers favored. And what could have been worse symbolism than his campaign’s efforts to undo the bipartisan debate commission’s recommendations at a time when Bush’s intelligence was being openly questioned?
In a diverse nation of 270 million people communication and symbolism are the tools a skillful politician uses to build and keep large and loyal majorities. Ronald Reagan, the most successful president of the post-war era, had a relationship with his supporters that was almost personal. So does Bill Clinton, who as a candidate won the fealty of a generation by playing saxophone on MTV. Together, these two very different men changed the nation’s highest office. Gone is the imperial presidency; in its place the empathetic presidency and its mantra, “I feel your pain.” But it is precisely the success of Clinton, whom Bush dislikes (to put it mildly), that has blinded the governor to the importance of enhancing his own empathy. Once, when his staff was urging him to go to the scene of a natural disaster, Bush kept resisting. It was, he said, the kind of thing Bill Clinton would do.
It’s all well and good for Bush to dislike Clinton, who beat Dad and sullied the Oval Office, but when you’re running for president and you’re in the fight of your political life, you might think about why this guy consistently maintains a 60 percent job-approval rating—and it isn’t just the economy, stupid. It’s empathy. It will take empathy for Bush to close the deal with undecided voters, who remain unsure of who he is and what he stands for.
Now mere days are left in what will surely be remembered as one of the strangest presidential races ever, one in which a commanding lead disappeared overnight because Gore kissed his wife, and another commanding lead vanished because Gore wore too much blush and sighed too often, and the side that tried its hardest to avoid debates was able to get back into the race because of debates—and Oprah belongs in there somewhere. Who can even calculate what might happen next?
Well, let’s give it a try. Gore needs to hold onto what he had at the start of the debate fortnight, which are solid (but not safe) leads in Pennsylvania and Michigan and an even chance at taking Florida. A Gore sweep of those states would put Bush in the position of having to capture just about every other closely contested state to win the election. Gore needs to attack Bush’s record in Texas—which is the only thing he did effectively in the second debate—but has to do it in a credible way, because his credibility has become an issue. So far, no good: One of Gore’s current crop of ads blames Bush for the death of efforts to raise the minimum wage in Texas. This is ludicrous. The state minimum wage hasn’t been an issue for years, and it covers a tiny percentage of the workforce (mainly agricultural workers). Why lie when you can tell the truth? Bush’s Achilles’ heel is health care in general and Medicaid in particular. Go for it.
Bush needs to sustain the momentum from the second debate. He does so much better when he is pumped up than when he is languishing—and it’s obvious to everybody. No gaffes. No stupids. Show empathy. He has to win Florida; no Thanksgiving turkey for Jeb if he doesn’t deliver the state. He has been without a message since “compassionate conservative” went down the drain (“Real plans for real people” doesn’t say anything); he needs to concentrate on three themes: Whom do you trust? Who will empower people instead of government? Who can work with the other side to get things done?
Finally, he needs to win for the right reasons. From the very beginning, the Bush strategy has been to win the race with personality. It seems to be working, at last—but it’s not enough. To win because the voters find him less objectionable than the other guy is to repeat the campaign that his father ran in 1988. You can win that way, but you can’t govern.