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By PHILIP GAILEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000
Some reflections on the 2000 presidential election campaign:
Ralph Nader. There are plenty of good reasons to vote against Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, but the Nader-is-a-vote-for-Bush argument assumes that his supporters are too stupid to know what they are doing. People should feel free to vote their conscience and be prepared to live with the consequences. Nader voters certainly don't deserve condescending lectures from editorialists and pundits who support Gore. Democrats had no problem with Ross Perot's third-party candidacy that helped Bill Clinton topple President George Bush from office in 1992. Third-party candidates can make a difference, for better or worse, by raising issues that the major-party candidates lack the political courage to address. During his time on the national stage, Perot forced federal budget deficits to the top of the political agenda. Is it the press's job to decide which third-party candidates are legitimate, and which are not? To decide that a Perot candidacy is okay but a Nader candidacy is not? Democracy is about giving the people choices and letting them decide. (If Gore loses, Nader may have to go into the witness protection program.)
The candidates' message. Both George W. Bush and Al Gore have appealed to our selfish interests. Neither has called for sacrifice for the common good. Instead, they have offered us a free lunch and led us to believe that there are painless solutions to the nation's problems, including Social Security and Medicare. They know better, but they pretend that budget surpluses that may or may not materialize will take care of everything. Don't worry, be happy.
Bush's biggest mistake. Bush's $1.3-trillion, across-the-board tax cut, the centerpiece of his campaign, has robbed the Texas governor of the credibility he needed to sell his reform plans for Social Security and Medicare. His numbers just don't add up. Either he is too dense to know that or he is deliberately misleading voters. Talk about voodoo economics.
Gore's biggest mistake. He assumed from the beginning that his biggest political problem was Bill Clinton. As the campaign unfolded, it became clear that his biggest problem was Al Gore. Even people who like his position on the issues are turned off by his constantly-changing political persona. Voters look at more than a candidate's IQ; they also need to feel comfortable with the person, to know who he is at his core. Many voters who acknowledge Gore's intellectual superiority are not sure they can trust him -- or even stand him for four years. Gore can't blame Clinton for that.
The biggest disappointment. Gore's selection of Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as his vice-presidential sidekick was a big hit initially. Among other things, it broke another religious barrier in presidential politics. Unfortunately, the vice presidential running mate Gore introduced to the American people in August is not the one we have seen on the campaign trail. Liberals who are quick to denounce conservative Christians for injecting religion into politics fell strangely silent as Lieberman, sounding like Pat Robertson's soul-mate, went around the country equating religion with morality. Meanwhile, centrist Democrats watched with dismay as Lieberman waffled on school vouchers, tort reform, affirmative action and the partial privatization of Social Security -- issues on which he had shown a willingness to buck Democratic orthodoxy. Other Democrats are disgusted with Lieberman's attempt to ingratiate himself with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose anti-Semitic rant continues to poison relations between blacks and Jews. As the campaign comes to an end, Lieberman is looking more like just another politician, who will do and say just about anything to get elected. It has been a pitiful sight to watch.
The biggest hypocrites. This newspaper received a surprising number of letters from readers, presumably anti-Bush voters, who resented the fact that Bush's mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, was out campaigning for her son. Did they expect her to sit this campaign out? Her critics apparently have forgotten that Miss Lillian campaigned for her son, Jimmy Carter, and that when a Kennedy runs for office, the whole clan fans out to do their part. Don't I recall Bill Clinton's mother hitting the campaign trail for her son? People who criticize Barbara Bush for trying to help her son win Florida are hypocrites.
The issues. Democrats keep trying to make every presidential election a referendum on abortion. They warn that a Republican president will pack the U.S. Supreme Court with conservative justices who will overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision establishing the right to abortion. However, history suggests that the make-up of the Supreme Court, as important as it is, is not a voting issue for most people. If abortion, gun control and campaign finance reform -- the political agenda set by Washington reporters and politicians -- were decisive issues in this presidential election, Bush should be dead in the water, which he is not.
In any election, citizens have an obligation to inform themselves on the candidates and the issues and to vote -- for any candidate they choose. In recommending Al Gore for president, this newspaper's editorial board offered our assessment of the candidates and our thinking on why we believe Gore, despite his flaws, would be a better president than Bush. That's our opinion, for what it's worth. Other newspapers have made the case for electing Bush. Contrary to what some of you may think, we are not trying to tell you how to vote. That's your call, not ours.