W: too stupid?

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Wed Aug 30 14:38:07 PDT 2000

[From Chris Caldwell's column in the Aug 30-Sep 5 New York Press. The antecedents here are the Bush & Gore tax plans.]

Their most important similarity, however-and here's where the Survivor analogy comes in-is that they're both too complicated for the public to understand. Taxes are a drama that fascinates people while leaving them without the foggiest idea of what they're fascinated by. The important thing is to respect the viewer's (or in this case the voter's, which probably amounts to the same thing) sense of drama. The only sin is to look bad on camera.

Last week, George W. Bush looked bad on camera. On balance, I prefer his plan to Gore's, but, again, this is Survivor. The level of ignorance on the subject is so universal that it doesn't matter who has the better plan. If Bush's plan were praised by 20 Nobel laureates, while Gore's were shown to have been written in lipstick on a beer-mat by Tom Harkin's yogi at 4 o'clock in the morning, it wouldn't matter. What mattered last week is that, in appearance after appearance, Bush appeared incapable of thinking intelligently about taxes and Social Security. He didn't understand what his own plan said. He even (in an unfortunate WASPy slip) said "terriers" when he meant tariffs.

Voters who think about it realize that if George W. Bush were elected president, he would bestow on his father one of the greatest gifts a son could ever give his father: he would instantly render Bush Senior merely the second-stupidest man ever to sit in the Oval Office. The key for Bush is to get voters not to think about it. In stumbling on taxes and Social Security, Bush did the only thing he must avoid doing at all costs: he raised the Too-Stupid-to-Be-President issue.

As Bush's intelligence raises more concerns, he and his campaign sound more and more liberal in dismissing them. A Tom DeFrank piece in the New York Daily News had stated that Bush was eager to duck out of the Boston debate scheduled for this fall, and hinted that he sought to change the rules on the others. Last week, The Boston Globe interviewed a Bush adviser, who responded irately that the debates weren't a "real" measure of presidential intelligence: "What does that show of your leadership skills to be in those eighth-grade style debates?" the aide said. "You're never going to be in a situation like that in real life." He sounded like an affirmative-action supporter attacking the use of SATs in college admissions.

Everyone outside of the two party hierarchies complained that the Philadelphia and Los Angeles conventions were nothing more than four-day advertisements. Well, fine. Let's make a relative assessment of the two convention speeches as advertisements, then. Bush's speech, which again was the better of the two, had the goal of luring nontraditional voters into the Republican camp. Thus far it has failed. Bush is still polling low among blacks and Jews.

The main goal of Gore's speech, by contrast, was to throw so much "substance" at the American electorate that Bush would have to respond to it, to lure Bush out of the chitchatty barroom of platitudes and into the dark alley of statistics and logical arguments, where Gore and his surrogates are waiting to coldcock him. Last week shows that that strategy has succeeded beyond Gore's wildest dreams.

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