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Peace, prosperity -- and no war

Posted August 28, 2008

Ah, for the days when a presidential hopeful could decry a “culture with too much meanness” in his nomination speech and be taken seriously. When then-Vice President Al Gore and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush ran for the White House in 2000, much of the back-and-forth between to two sides centered on whether the country should continue several straight years of sustained economic growth and unprecedented prosperity (Gore) or if Americans would prefer a chief executive with good moral character and a “humble” foreign policy (Bush).

The Times’ morning-after editorials in 2000 that reacted to Bush’s and Gore’s respective nomination speeches and the campaigns then reflected a world that was -- though not far from us now in terms of time -- far different than ours today. Both Bush and Gore got points from Times editors for appealing to the political center, and neither editorial touched on foreign policy or terrorism. Indeed, reading the editorials below makes it easy for one to think that the U.S. and the world couldn’t possibly have seen what the next eight years had in store.

The Times’ reaction to George W. Bush’s nomination speech:

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Friday August 4, 2000Back to the FutureFor four muggy days in Philadelphia, George W. Bush brought the Republican Party together in a bond of unity not seen since the Reagan years, nor imagined possible in the snows of New Hampshire just seven months ago.The 54-year-old Texas governor proposed a sharing of effort between a limited government and private interests “to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.” This is what compassionate conservatism means, he said, “and on this ground we will govern.” In his assertion that the “alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference,” Bush sounded like President Clinton, whether he wanted to or not; his reference to tearing down walls was Reaganesque.Bush launched a preemptive strike by lashing the Clinton-Gore administration for failing to fulfill the opportunities of American prosperity: “They had their chance. They have not led. We will."What he failed to mention was that Republicans have controlled Congress for the past six years and often blocked the initiatives of Clinton, measures that in many instances are similar to those Bush proposes.Bush’s major challenge was to provide voters with a coherent vision of what he seeks in four or eight years and to make a case for changing administrations. The picture he painted was a scattershot affair. There were familiar generalities on many issues: fixing Social Security, making the military stronger and offering low-income people tax credits to buy health insurance. Several themes were reliable GOP favorites, including tax cuts for all, along with longtime Democratic favorites like improving education.At a few points he was quite specific, calling for a 5% cut in the tax rate of lower-income Americans (although unspecified reductions for wealthy taxpayers). Bush unexpectedly met the abortion issue head-on, promising, if elected, to sign into law a partial-birth abortion bill if one is sent to him by Congress. At times Bush evoked images of past heroes, Democrats as well as Republicans. A film used to introduce him flashed an image of Martin Luther King Jr. and carried the recorded voice of John F. Kennedy’s in his inaugural speech: “Ask not. . . . " On occasion, he rambled through excessive repetition. Bush is most effective in personal contact, not a set speech.In all, though, Bush achieved his objective for this stage in his campaign: He told Clinton opponents what they most wanted to hear, that he would uphold the honor and dignity of the office, and he stayed safely moderate for the many independent voters turned off by the doctrinaire GOP rhetoric of past years. Even his comment about abortion was limited to partial-birth abortion, which is not supported to the same degree as general abortion rights by either Republicans or Democrats.Nothing generates party unity like being on the outside of the White House gates looking in for eight long years. Delegates and activists set aside their internal ideological differences out of the overriding desire to win. And in Bush, they think they have a winner.Given the recycled nature of some key themes--good ones but recycled nonetheless--Bush in the future would do best to drop one line in the speech, the one about not running in borrowed clothes.

The Times’ reaction to Gore:

Friday, August 18, 2000Hitting the BasesStanding before the Democratic National Convention “as my own man” at last, Vice President Al Gore walked grinning into Los Angeles’ Staples Center, high-fiving his way to the stage, and accepted his party’s nomination for president Thursday night with a pledge to fight for America’s working families.Gore, a familiar face in politics for a quarter of a century, was in the odd position of having to reintroduce himself to voters. In a speech considered critical to his prospects against Republican nominee George W. Bush, he portrayed the Texas governor as the friend of the rich and powerful. For himself, Gore asked the people to judge him by “how and what we do for all of you--the people who pay the taxes, bear the burdens and live the American dream."Working hard to look presidential, Gore offered a list of specific issues that he would pursue, including targeted tax cuts for working families and reform of the estate tax to help farmers and small businesspeople. “For all the good times,” he said, “I am not satisfied."Opinion polls indicate that the voters frequently agree with Gore on the issues but are left cold by him as a person. The polls suggest Americans have a personal affinity with the more affable Bush. This disparity has unsettled Democratic strategists. Before Gore took the stage, Sen. Joseph R. Biden of Delaware said Democrats “can’t understand how a guy like George W. Bush can be leading a guy with the kind of caliber, experience and know-how as Al Gore."Delegates, looking forward to this night since arriving here last weekend, received Gore with hearty cheers and applause. He was not the magnetic Bill Clinton, but he worked populist issues that traditional Democrats hold dear.Although Gore wasn’t directly critical of the Texas governor, it surely was not coincidence that he used a school in San Antonio in an example of “crumbling and overcrowded” classrooms.The Democratic nominee obviously believed that voters would respond to a sharper delineation of the issues than they got from Bush in his acceptance speech in Philadelphia two weeks ago. Gore emphasized their different approaches to use of the budget surplus to finance tax cuts. Bush’s plan gives across-the-board tax cuts that favor the affluent. Gore took a more populist stance, saying his plan would “make sure that our prosperity enriches not just the few but all working families."Gore also reached out to the political center on the issue of morals or family values. He said, “I believe we must challenge a culture with too much meanness and not enough meaning,” especially violence and indecency in the entertainment industry. In this, Gore may also have been trying to rid himself of the taint of President Clinton’s sexual scandals.In what will be seen by many Americans as manipulated timing designed to grab attention from Gore, it was disclosed Thursday that independent counsel Robert Ray has convened a grand jury to decide whether Clinton can be indicted after he leaves office for statements about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. If the announcement has political effect, it will only be a backlash in Gore’s favor. Even Bush’s campaign manager said, “We think the timing of this was wrong."Gore took his full share of credit for successful Clinton programs and promised to carry forth much of the Clinton-Gore agenda. He said he knows “I won’t always be the most exciting politician,” but, he added, the presidency “is more than a popularity contest."Given the frenzy of corporate and private fund-raising at the conventions, first with the GOP in Philadelphia and this week with the Democrats in Los Angeles, it’s ironic indeed that Gore promised that campaign finance reform would be the “very first bill” that a Gore administration would push. Even if the vice president missed that irony, the vow was welcome. In the long run, it will be the most important pledge Al Gore made Thursday night.


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