The campaign is only hours old, and only one of the two major candidates has formally announced, but already the battle lines are clear: Texas Gov. George W. Bush has the personality, Vice President Gore has the issues.
George W. stood up in Iowa and said with southwestern succinctness, "I'm running for president of the U.S.; there's no turning back, and I intend to be the next president of the U.S." Gore, on the other hand, went to the public square in his ancestral hometown of Carthage, Tenn., and spoke for more than 20 minutes in what sounded more like an acceptance speech than an announcement.
In his entire dazzling debut tour, Bush never raised his voice. Gore shouted--he had to because he was heckled by a little group of AIDS demonstrators. He also declaimed and never achieved a moment of human contact. Bush had nothing but. He cheerfully anticipated that he would stumble; he expected the press to pounce.
Gore's pitch was that he knows the ropes of national and international affairs. But Bush made a powerful subliminal appeal to woman voters in America. Everyone knows that real men never ask directions. Bush, who wears cowboy boots and is the real-deal Texan his father always longed to be--drops his g's, walks and talks with a swagger--said without prompting that if he got lost in foreign affairs, he will ask the experts around him how to find his way. That's novelty.
Gore and Bush have more in common than their crown-prince upbringings. They both have political relatives, the functional equivalent of the mad uncle who embarrasses everyone, from whom they must distance themselves. The House Republicans scorn Bush's philosophy of "compassionate conservatism"-- conservatism yes, compassion, except for the rich, no. Gore's patron Bill Clinton has made mincemeat of the family values that Gore says matter more than anything else.
Gore mentioned Clinton's name just once in his long recital of the programs he hopes the country cares about more than his stiffness. George W. has had nothing to say about House Republicans who are so bad they make Bill Clinton look good. They are, like other Republicans, gaga about the governor. To them, he's sound on campaign finance reform, gun control, school vouchers and defense spending. Fripperies like sympathy for immigrants, an obsession with teaching every child to read and a notion that government can help can be overlooked for the greater glory of winning back the White House.
Neither Bush nor Gore is a great orator or phrasemaker. The emotion of the campaign will be derived from other strains. Democrats base their hopes on the issues that have proven so strong with the voters that they expect to win back the House. But people feel strongly about other things, such as what George W. refers to delicately as the "dignity of the presidency." Republicans look back fondly on his father's one term. Bush senior got only 38 percent of the vote against Bill Clinton in 1992. But today, it is said that Republicans are racked by guilt for failing to reelect him, and besides, it's a wonderful way to get even with Clinton for dodging conviction in the Senate.
It may be time for a president who comes from a functional family. We've had a pretty steady stream of confessional chief executives. Lyndon Johnson showed us his scar; Jimmy Carter told us about "lust in his heart," and Bill Clinton has been an inexhaustible source of things we don't want to know about.
The Gores have gone in for full disclosure, too. Al Gore took us to the hospital to visit his son after a near-fatal auto accident; in 1996, when Clinton escorted us to his mother's boudoir for confrontations with his drunken stepfather, the vice president relived his sister's death from lung cancer. Tipper Gore has lately confided that her man is great fun in the feathers.
George W. and Laura Bush look as if they can be trusted to keep their family secrets. We don't have to worry that she'll seek office or that he'll put us through any seminars on when sex is not sex. Bush had a wild youth, he says, but declines to divulge the details. He apparently does not feel he needs to in order to humanize himself.
It's so far a contest between style and substance.
George W. is at home on the stump and with himself. Al Gore is neither. He can be delightful in private, but his rival can be delightful in public, and the sooner Gore identifies the problem the better off he could be.