LOYAL OPPOSITION: Gore and Bush's Not-So-Brave New World

The other day, when George W. Bush was on his way to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to speak about Social Security -- again, without fully detailing his proposal for privatization -- Al Gore informed me that Bush was like the legendary Paul "Bear " Bryant, coach of the University of Alabama "Crimson Tide" football team. How so? Bryant apparently once said, "I don't have any ideas; my coaches have them. I just pass the ideas on and referee the arguments." Ouch. But minutes later, Bush let me know that Gore in his book, Earth in the Balance, advocated higher gas taxes as "one of the logical first steps in changing our policies in a manner consistent with a more responsible approach to the environtment." So when Gore boo-hoos over rising gas taxes, Bush accused, he is once again being a phony. Not true, Gore replied later that day, asserting that Bush had misrepresented his book. Gore maintained he had promoted a fossil fuels tax boost that would end up having no impact on prices for consumers: "Bush, once a Texas oil man, is on the defensive for his close ties to the oil industry." Bush shot back immediately by pointing out that Gore's so-called "progress and prosperity tour" was "officially a bust." What proved that? Bush had an answer: a reporter at the conservative Washington Times had pronounced it so.

By now, late afternoon, I was weary of the back-and-forth. It's as if these guys were scuffling over who's taking up more space in the backseat of daddy's car (or limousine). The Gore-Bush sniping goes on relentlessly and every day the two candidates bombard me with put-downs (large and small) of the other. I don't mean to suggest that the Vice President and the Texas Governor are constantly calling me to bitch. But I do receive five to ten emails daily from each one's campaign. Much, if not most, of the bytes are devoted to the tit-for-tat rat-a-tat-tat. Who's the biggest tool of Big Oil? Who's the most accomplished in the art of hypocrisy? On the day Bush is scheduled to propose "transportation solutions" for the disabled, the Gore campaign emails a press release noting that Bush, as Texas governor, took the wrong side in a disability rights case that went to the Supreme Court. On the day Gore is set to unveil a "new" national energy policy, the Bush HQ zaps out an alert claiming Gore benefitted directly from the federal government's sale of an oil reserve to Occidental Petroleum, a company with which Gore and his family has had a long-term relationship. (Gore denied he had been involved in this transaction.)

Forget C-SPAN, the network news, CNN, and the newspapers. I can track in near real-time the Bush-Gore contest for high school president everytime I log on. The role of the Internet in this election has been the subject of much overheated commentary, with particular attention granted to the web-site fundraising of John McCain and others. More importantly, the Internet has permitted voters unfiltered access to the candidates -- their words, that is --and it has allowed lazy journalists (and those not able to spend the thousands of dollars a day required for riding along on the campaign planes) minute-by-minute access to the push-and-shove of the campaign. At the end of the workday, after reading the flood of campaign email, I feel as if I've been to a dozen or so press conferences. (I also feel as if I've been on the phone with both halves of a romantic couple that has separated bitterly. He says; she says. He says; she says.)

Gore's and Bush's email campaigning is a follow-up to the rapid-response operation devised by the Clinton campaign of 1992. The pros in charge of that effort had learned from the 1988 race, when Vice President George Bush whipsawed the hapless Michael Dukakis, depicting the Massachusetts governor as a flag-burning, criminal-loving loser. Four years later, the Dukakis vets who ended up toiling for Clinton vowed to let no charge go unanswered within the media cycle in which it was made. Given Clinton's personal history -- Whitewater, ducking the draft, pot-smoking, Gennifer Flowers -- this was no small feat. Thanks to his fast-working aides, the Clinton spin was frequently attached to any news story that presented an unflattering allegation or fact.

That was before the You've Got Mail Age. Now campaigns dispatch their spin regarding an event before the event happens. When Bush was on his way to speak to the National Council of La Raza, the Gore-ites, with a few keystrokes, contacted every political reporter to note, "As Governor of Texas, Bush has consistently ignored the impoverished living conditions in the 'colonias' --unincorporated Hispanic neighborhoods along the Southwest US border that lack basic water and sewer systems, power connections, paved roads, accessiblae health care and adequate educational and employment oppportunities." Their goal, obviously, was to cast a shadow on the Bush speech and to prompt a reporter covering Bush at this meeting to ask if he has ever visited one of the 1500 "colonias." The Gore campaign says he has not.

One need not be a reporter to experience the vicious (and sometimes amusing) cyber-jousting. The Gore campaign posts its press releases on line, and visitors to the Bush campaign site can sign up to receive its news releases. It's doubtful that a significant percentage of the population is eager to take advantage of this opportunity. According to the Vanishing Voter poll conducted by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, 75 percent of the public is not paying attention to the presidential race. But these email missives, which are crafted for insider-observers, foreshadow the tactics of future campagins. Not too long from now, campaigns probably will be able to use lists of email addresses to mass-commmunicate (or mass-pander) one-on-one with potential voters. With more sophisticated technology -- off-shoots of the gimmicks deployed by today's direct mail kingpins -- candidates will tailor their email stumping to individual voters. And their messages will not be confined to written form. Campaigns will send out custom-designed audio and video messages. ("Hello, [pause] Bob. My best to your wife [pause] Eileen and your [pause] two children [pause] Brittany and [pause] Christina. I know that, like me, you are a caring citizen worried about [pause] taxes and [pause] the quality of education for our children. Let me tell you why I'm running for President...") It's not hard to envision a Gore-Bush-like contest in four to eight years when each time you turn on your computer, there is video footage with one candidate complaining, "Can you believe what my opponent is saying about me this morning?" And seconds later, the other candidate pops on your screen and exclaims, "Boy, is my opponent getting desperate! Did he try to get you to believe that I...." (How did they get past my filter? you might wonder.) These candidates won't have to campaign in schoolrooms or shake hands outside factories. Maybe big-money funders will insist on real-space meetings. But these pols can sit in television studios all day and speak to you directly via video-streaming. Perhaps a candidate will develop an avatar -- a better looking image of him- or herself -- to make the housecall. The fair-haired Representative Dick Gephardt once darkened his eyebrows because they disappeared beneath the bright glare of television lights. Why couldn't a candidate use a computer program to appear a few years younger, a bit healthier, or a few pounds thinner? To make his eyes appear less shifty? Surely, there are consultants who could advise a candidate on how to change facial features in order to render a visual image more trustworthy. ("Senator, symmetrical features will enhance your credibility.") Might there come a time when a campaign does not need what political operators call the "body"? Who will be the first computer-generated candidate?

To be less puckish, newfangled technology that creates a straight line between a candidate and large numbers of voters ought to be encouraged. Why should you have to wait for Peter Jennings to tell you what the candidates are up to? As this tech-driven trend continues, it may become less necessary for the media to spend time and resources following the candidates and reporting what they are saying. After all, citizens who care and who can use a computer will obtain this information from the candidates themselves. (supposing we assume away the digital divide.) Perhaps in this new information world, the large media entities instead could deliver a greater amount of evaluative political journalism--reports that assess the truthfulness of the politicians' claims and counterclaims. In most campaigns, not enough of this coverage occurs. (How many media outlets have examined Bush's and Gore's competing charges regarding Medicare?) Regardless of what technology brings forth, one thing is unlikely to change: the need for more break-through-the-spin truth in political campaigns.

David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, is the author of Deep Background, a novel of political suspense published by St. Martin's Press.

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