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Discord among Demos is a boon for Bush

SHARE Discord among Demos is a boon for Bush

Heading into the fall presidential campaign, Republican George W. Bush clearly occupies the most commanding position.

Start with his political base. In 1992, it was the Democrats who were willing to overlook disagreements among their various factions. This year, the roles are reversed.

Republicans are hungry, while key groups in the Democratic coalition are, at best, ambivalent about Al Gore. Many hard-core environmentalists see Gore as a turncoat willing to play footsie with big business. Organized labor feels burned by Gore's past support of trade deals. Gore won the endorsement of the United Auto Workers only recently. The Teamsters are on the fence.

Gore's selection of Sen. Joe Lieberman set off more murmuring, given that Lieberman's past positions on pivotal issues such as affirmative action, school vouchers and privatization of Social Security flatly contradicted Gore's.

I say "past positions" because Lieberman has been cheerfully heaving his New Democrat positions over the side like so much baggage.

He once said partial privatization of Social Security was something that "has to happen." But that, apparently, was a mere passing fancy.

Lieberman supported the ballot issue ending racial preference in California and raised questions about the tendency of affirmative action to harden into quotas. But last week, after meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus and other convention delegates, he was backpedaling.

With his base united, Bush is free to reach out to swing voters and — on such issues as education — move onto traditional Democratic turf. His support for the concept of school vouchers — an idea widely popular among minorities — may cut into Gore's support in traditional Democratic constituencies.

Meanwhile, Bush's centerpiece idea for partial privatization of Social Security has yet to be effectively countered by Gore.

The vice president sounds less like a New Democrat than an LBJ-style liberal. His plan would create a new entitlement for private accounts, which he would simply graft onto an unreformed Social Security system headed for insolvency.

Similarly, he calls for a new Medicare entitlement covering prescription drugs but also without reforming the underlying program.

Meanwhile, Bush is stepping into the vacuum created by Clinton's decision to pass on major reform. The political opportunity was there; a blue-ribbon commission had proposed a major restructuring of Medicare. The concept had bipartisan support. Restructuring of Medicare and Social Security could have been Clinton's legacy.

But Clinton walked away. If Medicare reform passed, Democrats could no longer accuse Republicans of wanting to throw grandma into the snow. Now Bush is borrowing from the commission's basic concept to structure his own plan for Medicare and health-care reform.

Nor is Gore receiving much credit for the economic boom. The problem, as a Wall Street Journal story pointed out, is that the last recession happened so long ago, most voters now take good times for granted.

Post World War II elections, on average, have taken place about three years after the previous business-cycle trough. This year's election will occur nearly 10 years after the last such downturn. In a Fox News survey taken in May, most respondents said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates had created more jobs than the Clinton administration.

Rhetorically, Gore remains his own worst enemy. Many analysts said that last week he gave the speech of his life. OK, compared to other Gore speeches, it wasn't bad. But if that isn't damning by faint praise, I don't know what is.

Gore's promises of a better future were accompanied by body language radiating palpable discomfort. When words and delivery are so jarringly out of sync, viewers are entitled to wonder if a speaker means what he says. Bush may be no Winston Churchill, but Gore makes him look good by comparison.

Is Bush's victory assured? No way. Bush would do well to recall the example of his father's 1988 opponent, Michael Dukakis, who blew a huge lead and lost.

One reason politics lends itself to sports metaphors is that in elections, as in athletics, unexpected reversals can occur in the time it takes a candidate to utter a single dopey remark. Bush heads into the home stretch with solid advantages, but all could turn to ashes if he performs poorly in the debates.

E. Thomas McClanahan is the Sunday Opinion editor for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108-1413.