Archive for Sunday, November 5, 2000

Nader wins prize for best campaign

November 5, 2000


— Good campaigns are not always winning campaigns. In 1976, from the conventions to Election Day, Gerald Ford ran a much better race than Jimmy Carter, but Carter took the White House.

Good campaigns also do not translate automatically into effective presidencies. Bill Clinton ran a superb campaign in 1992, but his presidential transition and first year in office were flagrantly inept.

So, without attempting to guess the outcome of this year's race, let alone estimate who might make the best president, let's try to answer the narrow political question: Who's put on the best campaign? Who's made the most of his available resources and opportunities?

I think the answer has to be Ralph Nader. On Labor Day, the consumer activist was barely a blip on the screen, and the Green Party that endorsed him was regarded as a collection of oddballs. But despite being shut out of the presidential debates, having meager funds and not a nickel of public financing, Nader has made himself the fulcrum of power in half a dozen battleground states.

Often in the past a nagging bore, he proved himself a quick and witty TV performer, adept at sharp sound bites such as this on ABC's "This Week": "If Gore cannot beat the bumbling Texas governor with that horrific record, what good is he? Good heavens! I mean, this should be a slam-dunk."

For anyone who has met the Nader Greens in their run-down storefronts from Madison to Seattle, the likelihood of their becoming the nucleus of anything large or long-lasting seems remote. Their causes are so diverse, their enthusiasms so exotic, they are perpetually ready to implode. But as a useful fiction, Nader's invention of the Green Party as a scourge of special-interest government was a brilliant device for reaching some of Ross Perot's followers who had been turned off by Pat Buchanan's fulminations. It may be fiction, but it's sure creative.

The second-best campaign has been George Bush's. He has been steady enough, in his first national race, to come back from two major primary losses in New Hampshire and Michigan and to withstand every knockout punch from the far more seasoned Democratic campaign.

Even while lugging the burden of an implausibly large tax-cut proposal, Bush has managed to achieve two of his major strategic goals. He has established a claim on some longtime Democratic issues, such as education, and he has taken the campaign onto Democratic turf, challenging seriously in normally Democratic states from Oregon to Minnesota to Pennsylvania.

With the help of a huge donor base, he has put more organizational resources into more states and districts than any non-incumbent presidential candidate in my experience. Win or lose, his effort has strengthened the Republican Party and positioned it to compete for votes in areas and with constituencies where it barely had a foothold.

He would have been better off disclosing months ago his 1976 arrest for driving under the influence, rather than have it leak out now. But the confidence Republican governors placed in Bush when they moved early to make him the nominee has not been misplaced.

By comparison, the Gore campaign has not been particularly inventive or creative, nor has it visibly improved Democratic prospects in any of the states where I have reported. If he wins the White House, the complaints one hears today from Democrats about wasted opportunities and squandered advantages will be muted. But they are real. After a good convention and widely applauded vice presidential choice, the Gore campaign in the view of other Democrats muddled its central message of economic prosperity with a shrill populist attack on corporate greed. It failed to present a consistent and attractive picture of the nominee. It did not fully exploit the debates to demonstrate his claim to greater experience and superior qualifications for the presidency. It allowed a man with a genuine history as a New Democrat to appear, at times, an old-fashioned liberal. In the end, rather than offering a vision of the future that built on the successes of the current administration, Gore found himself exploiting the hoariest of Democratic arguments: Don't let Republicans take your Social Security away.

He could win the presidency, I suppose, despite all that, because times are good and he has worked his heart out. But this doesn't compare to the great Democratic campaigns of the past, or even to two other campaigns we've seen this year.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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