A Four Letter Word in the White House

Okay, what's a four-letter word for "our next president"? If you said Gore, you have about a 50 percent chance of being right next November. Probably a little higher than 50, but it's early yet.Vice President Al Gore has emerged from the primary season relatively unscathed, and certainly with far fewer scathes than GOP nominee-to-be George W. Bush. The most recent national polls have the Bush-Gore contest about even up, but the indications from Tuesday's contests, and their attendant exit polls, are favorable to the Veep. In the exit poll of all voters from the California primary -- an electorate probably more GOP-leaning than the turnout come November -- Gore leads Bush by a 51-percent-to-43-percent margin.The problem for W. is that he ends the primary process well to the right of where he started. That he knows he needs to re-center was clear from his Tuesday-night speech, where he not only sought to cloak himself, however improbably, in the raiment of reform, but also relegated his tax cut to the fourth item on his list of things he'd do with the surplus (after shoring up Social Security and boosting spending on the military and schools). For his part, Gore began trolling for unmoored McCainites as early as last week's debate with Bill Bradley, in which he charged several times that of the four major candidates, only W. was deaf to the appeal of campaign-finance reform.Neither Gore nor Bush is a natural fit for the McCain malcontents come November. But someone (not Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot) will lay claim to most of them, and Gore's positions on choice, guns and the environment -- and his ability to claim some credit for the state of the economy -- are more likely to attract wavering centrists than Bush's attempt to personify the cause of moral regeneration. Should the election come down to a test between Gore's credibility as a steward of the economy and Bush's credibility as a midwife of moral rebirth, the Dems should prevail. It's easier to see the Veep as a banker than it is the Guv as a minister, let alone a prophet.When historians look back on the brief, intense primary season of campaign 2000, they will doubtless note that John McCain proved himself a far more compelling challenger in his party than Bill Bradley did in his. But they should also note that February's bizarre primary calendar artificially inflated McCain's stature, and further deflated Bradley's in the process.The weirdness of February was that Republican contests were scheduled in several key states that had no corresponding Democratic contests. As a result, Democrats, having no place else to go, flocked to crucial GOP primaries. Republicans constituted only 48 percent of the voters in their own Michigan primary, where McCain got enough support among independents and Democrats to overcome Bush's 2-1 advantage among Republicans. The McCain problem this Tuesday night, however, was that Democrats finally had their own Democratic primaries to vote in, and only a relative handful of Dems were willing to go behind enemy lines when they could easily vote in their own party. In Ohio and Missouri -- two states where the Republican primaries were open to Democats -- fully 70 percent and 61 percent of the voters in the GOP contest were Republican, and Bush carried these states overwhelmingly. McCain simply couldn't win anywhere that the Republicans constituted a clear majority of the Republican voters (well, anywhere except New England, where Republicans are the ideological equivalents of center-left Democrats anywhere else).The reasons for McCain's considerable appeal to Democrats and independents were legion. He was the onetime hawk who made friends -- who made a show of making friends -- with onetime doves. He made war not just on the cultural right wing of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell but on the economic right wing of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. His attacks on W.'s tax cuts for favoring the rich (38 percent goes to the wealthiest 1 percent) were every bit as heretical as his affront to the Christian right. Indeed, I suspect part of McCain's appeal to Democrats was that he confirmed their hitherto unvoiced suspicion that reasonable Republicans, freed from the confines of party discipline, didn't really believe all that stuff they voted for, and didn't even want to associate with those right-wing movement types who normally surrounded them. Left to their own devices, serious Republicans would hang with liberal reporters and end up as tribunes for moderation.In hindsight, the amount of wishful thinking that went into the McCain phenomenon -- on the part of both the campaign and its Democratic supporters -- was staggering. No presidential campaign can prevail that flatly rejects its party's core program, let alone that insults the party's activist cadres. McCain's only chance, coming off his Michigan upset, would have been to find some way to appeal more directly to the Republican base. Problem was, the Republican base already had a candidate, and almost everything McCain said after Michigan -- his attacks on the Christian right most especially -- only increased the determination of core Republicans to vote for Bush. On Tuesday, the religious right cast their vote for Boy George over McCain by margins ranging from 3-to-1 to 8-to-1.McCain, at least, can comfort himself with the knowledge that he himself provoked his obliteration at the hands of his party base. Poor Bill Bradley, on the other hand, fared even worse among hardcore Democrats than McCain did with the Republican right, and these Democratic cadres were precisely the voters that Bradley targeted most of all. From the day he first intimated he was thinking of seeking the presidency, Bradley said his number-one concern would be to shine a light on American racism. No presidential candidate had ever before decried the racial profiling that is common practice among police, or the disproportionate effect that the war on drugs has had on nonwhite communities. No mainstream campaign since Robert Kennedy's has ever exhibited such a strong preferential option for the poor, with its call for linking increases in the minimum wage to those in the median wage, and for establishing universal health insurance.And few mainstream Democratic campaigns have ever fared quite so poorly among the poor and nonwhite. Bradley lost to Gore among African-American voters by margins of 6- and 7-to-1; in Georgia, it was a breathtaking 11-to-1. Similarly, the poorer the Democratic voter, the more likely he or she was to vote for Al Gore; in every single state, Bradley ran strongest among voters with incomes in excess of $100,000.In short, Bill Bradley did worst among the very groups he cared about most. His problem was that those groups were also the groups that were the most loyal to Bill Clinton, the groups least likely to stray from Al Gore. In California, the Veep got nearly seven African-American votes for every one Bradley pulled down, and there was an identical disparity among Latino voters. Indeed, though some election-night commentators speculated that Latinos might be prepared to embrace the friendly cultural traditionalism of Senor W. come November, Gore emerges from Tuesday's primary with a strong claim to the Latino vote. In New York, just 4 percent of the voters in the Republican contest identified themselves as Hispanic; in the Democratic contest, it was 12 percent -- and Gore pulled down over four-fifths of that vote. In California's blanket primary, Gore won 56 percent of the Latino vote to Bush's 18 percent.The political effect that the third wave of immigrants is having, then, is fairly complex. As the electorate grows slightly more Latino, it may well grow more conservative on cultural questions like gay marriage -- at the same time that it is growing more liberal on school-spending, income-equity and labor-rights questions. As a voting bloc, Latinos look more and more like the Southern and Eastern European Catholic and Orthodox voters of the 1930s, who stuck close to their churches on matters of morals, and close to their unions on all things economic. One more reason why Gore's in somewhat better shape than Bush come November. Know a four-letter word for "loser"?

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