One Night, Two Different Elections

Election Night in Austin, Texas: It's a Wayne's world. Wayne Newton, that is.

In front of a state house capitol illuminated by changing colors (including Grinch-green and a red-white-blue mix), Newton took the stage and inexplicably thanked God for the Biblical torrents of rain that had drenched the thousands gathered before him. (Texas has recently been experiencing flooding and needed no additional precipitation.)

Newton then prayed for ten seconds. The crowd cheered; the coming Bush win would be a cultural victory. The people over the guv'mint. Main Street over the elitist, liberal, we-know- best establishment. And who better to symbolize the winners than middle America's favorite lounge act?

Through the campaign, Bush had tossed out significant policy proposals -- partial privatization of Social Security, a Medicare reform scheme that relies upon the insurance industry, a super-sized tax cut that favors the well-heeled. In fact, his initiatives were generally bolder than those tendered by Al Gore the policy-guy. But it was Bush's rhetoric -- a somewhat contradictory combo of barbed anti-Washington bromides, let's-rise-above-it platitudes and restore-honor homilies -- that seemed to have registered the most with his supporters.

As Newton crooned "America the Beautiful," Patrick Flenniken, a 36-year-old middle school teacher and Democrat-turned-Republican, explained his enthusiasm for Bush: "He has the vision of bringing the people together."

By the way, on the giant video screen next to the stage was the latest in a long line of Bush slogans: "Bringing America Together." Flenniken went on, "What was Gore's message? I never figured that out."

The bottom line explanation for Bush's success? Hallmark beat Harvard.

Roll over, Wayne Newton and tell Lee Greenwood the news. Bush's bid to reclaim America fell flat.

The electorate said "no thank you" to his corn-pone. Bush failed in his effort to reposition the Republican party with sentiment. He posed for photo ops with children of color. He branded himself "a different kind of Republican" and hailed his own personal creation of "compassionate conservative." His convention in Philadelphia was a cynical affair of unacknowledged affirmative action. He sold himself to the electorate as a GOPer who had fared well among African-American and Hispanic voters in Texas. But exit polls on election day were showing that minority voters -- especially Latino Americans -- were not being enticed by the GOP's happy warrior, and thousands of these citizens in his own state did not trek to Austin to show their support for Bush on election night.

One of the few African-Americans present at the "victory" rally was the emcee -- Fred McClure, a former aide to President Bush and President Reagan. (At one point during the festivities, McClure cited George W. as the "forty-ninth" president. Actually, W. was hoping to become the forty-third chief executive.) The crowd was overwhelmingly white -- country clubbers, good ol' boys and girls, and the fund-'em-then-lobby-'em set of Texas. Here was Bush's flock, and it did not look like America. The compassionate-con con came close, but not close enough.


Halfway through election day, Karl Rove, the Bush master-strategist, sat in his office and was staring intensely at his computer screen, beneath portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. How had this political consultant succeeded in adding a governor of middling experience and questionable intellectual depth to this lofty set?

"Message discipline, sheer discipline," a senior Bush aide said later, as he stood in the nighttime rain. Rove had written a simple script: first, attack big government, then claim to be a political healer who can rid Washington of partisan bickering and promise to restore honor and integrity to the White House. Next, promote five specific issues: Social Security reform, Medicare reform, education reform, a military rebuilding and a tax cut. And Bush had religiously stuck to the cue cards.

At the Austin rally, when I asked his supporters why they were Bush-backers, most repeated the buzz phrases.

"He trusts people, not government."

"A uniter, not a divider."

"A leader who leads."

All of these had been crafted by Rove and his gang and uttered by Bush ad nauseum. Credit Rove; the Bush campaign did all that it could with what it had -- a man whom columnist Molly Ivins quasi-defends as not-stupid-but-ignorant. ("We're looking at a real steep learning curve here," she said when it looked like Bush was going to be the next president.)

Rove bluffed his way to a win with a weak hand. First, he convinced the Clinton-abused GOP that Bush was its salvation, and the money poured in ($100 million to be precise). He bedeviled the Gore camp, which could not devise an anti-Bush attack plan without looking desperate. Gore attempted to wage an ever-shifting ground war with Bush on policy details, and Bush/Rove skipped past the bayonets. CNN talking head Mary Matalin was correct: Rove's a genius.

Karl Rove's bandwagon broke an axle.

He had predicted a 320-electoral vote blowout. Throughout the whole campaign, he and his comrades had adopted a self-assured attitude. Winning? No problemo. This was a classic Rove tactic. During those moments on election night when Bush's future did not look shiny, his aides began to shift their message: "look how far we've come against an incumbent vice president during times of prosperity and peace."

But they hid their surprise well. For months, they appeared to believe the presidential contest was a frat-house election, not a student-body election -- and that a man of limited intellectual curiosity could be chosen to lead the nation in a time of complex challenges and receive an irrefutable mandate to transform Washington and the nation. Didn't some of them wonder whether Bush's anti-intellectualism ("insurance -- that's a Washington term") might turn off a majority of voters?

The Bush diehards at the rally, of course, did not find it easy to accept the notion of losing. "I don't trust the legitimacy of a Gore win," said Grace Germany, a 63-year-old retired business analysis for NASA's space shuttle program. "Everybody I know in other states, including many Democratic relatives, is voting for Bush. I know there's a lot of fraud. It's the unions who are mixed up with some of the mafia."

No, it wasn't a union-mafia conspiracy; it was a rejection of know-little-ism.


"W is for winner!" Lieut. Governor Rick Perry shouted from the stage -- before most states had been called. Perry, an ex-Democrat who chaired Gore's presidential campaign in Texas in 1988, drew the loudest applause when he exclaimed that once Bush assumes residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, "parents can look at that man in the White House and let him be a role model for all children." In other words, it's still about Monica.

Bush's honesty-and-integrity pitch was concocted in response to Bill Clinton's sex-and-lies scandal. Without directly referring to that ugly business, Bush was able to capitalize on the morning-after disappointment, dismay and disgust that lingered. Impeachment did boomerang against congressional Republicans (though almost all of the Republican House impeachment managers were holding their own on election night), but Clinton had provided Bush an easy-to-exploit strategic opening. Without the Monica business, Bush would have had less reason to mount a trust-and-values assault on Gore -- and with economic indicators strong, he needed as much character-related ammunition as possible.

Worse for Gore, the vice president managed to position himself (or allow the Bush campaign and the media to position him) as the surrogate liar-in-chief. Take away Bush's restore-honor schpiel and the governor -- and everyone else -- probably would have been able to hit the sheets early on election night and look forward to four Gore years. Bush owes Lewinsky mucho thanks. As one happy Bush supporter -- no names, please, he insisted -- said when Bush was declared the president-elect, "This is payback for you-know-what."

Once again, the electorate had a chance to speak on impeachment and, once again, Republicans and conservatives were unhappy with the results.

"If Gore wins, this says we're going further on a moral decline," griped Nancy Petersen, a 55-year-old retired EMT technician and Bush volunteer, as she entered the plaza where no victory rally would be consummated. "I can't believe it. I don't want anymore of this lying stuff. And look at Gore's eyes. He's doing coke. And what was he doing in Florida at four in the morning on election day? He was buying votes. George Bush, a good decent man was home in bed. People have to believe in him and cleanse the White House."

Well, most voters did not.


***

On election night -- and in the following days -- the election could have gone either way. So could have the analysis. Before E-day, pundits and partisans talked about the presidential race as a referendum on Gore's personality (split or otherwise), on Bush's intelligence, on Gore's prosperity-and-policy-minutia strategy, on Bush's smile-and-values strategy, on the future of Social Security, on abortion rights, on tax cuts, on the role of government in an era of projected budget surpluses, on the Clinton legacy, on the Clinton scandal.

Moreover, did the get-out-the-vote efforts of labor, abortion rights outfits,the Sierra Club and the NAACP keep Gore in the hunt? Did the NRA's and the US Chamber of Commerce's election activities bolster Bush? Perhaps it all cancelled out.

Political analysts (myself included) always scrutinize election results and try to divine big meaning about political trends and the nation itself (or the part of it that bothers to vote). But this winner-take-all (eventually) presidential election resolved little except who gets to sit in a certain chair in a certain office. Sure, it shows an evenly divided electorate. Beyond that, what might it indicate? Depends on which two thousand voters in Florida you ask.

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