Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#111, October 31, 2000


by Marylaine Block

What amazes me about this campaign is not what the candidates are saying, but what they're very carefully NOT mentioning. It's like each candidate has something that's impossible to not notice, but too embarrassing to mention, like a skunk in the living room.

Al Gore's skunk, of course, is the President. His job approval rating is still sky high, and the party faithful still adore him, but in Gore's campaign, Bill Clinton is the very large man who wasn't there. ("He wasn't there again today. Oh, how I wish he'd go away!")

No matter that this deprives Gore of the support of the party's most effective politician, fundraiser, and get-out-the-vote barnburner. No matter that this leaves Gore speaking of his accomplishments as vice-president in odd, passive-voice statements: "I was asked to…", "I was given the responsibility for… " to avoid the tricky issue of who did the asking.

One problem is that many people who like what Clinton's done in office are disgusted with his private behavior, and long for a President we can respect. Gore has reason to fear that the miasma of Clinton's scandal will cling to him, too.

Gore also has to fear being dwarfed by the larger-than-life man he's played second fiddle to for eight years. His experience and mastery of policy looks dull and boring next to Clinton's ability to connect with people. Clinton is the climax [in every sense of the word] who inevitably turns plodding Gore into an anti-climax.

Bush has made a point of saying he has no stake in the partisan bickering in Washington. That's because he has his own skunk in the living room: the Republican congress. When the government shut down in 1995, voters didn't like it, and they blamed congressional Republicans for it.

Voters didn't like their vitriolic language, or the hint of partisan vendetta: Newt Gingrich calling Clinton "the enemy of normal Americans"; Robert Dornan accusing Clinton of spying for the Soviets; Dan Burton insisting the Clintons must have murdered Vince Foster; Congress holding one Clinton investigation after another (and sometimes the same one, again and again). When Congress insisted on impeaching Clinton, polls showed most Americans thought this was about partisan politics. The longer the impeachment proceedings dragged on, the higher Clinton's job approval rose and the lower Congress's ratings sank.

Bush likes to ask Gore why, after eight years, his team couldn't pass a patient's bill of rights, campaign finance reform, social security reform? The Republicans had proposals on the table, he says, and the President and congressional Democrats never compromised.

Of course he's pretending that the Republicans' proposals were honest compromises rather than demands for abject surrender on every principle Democrats stand for -- the Republican campaign finance reform bill virtually outlawed labor union contributions, its patients' bill of rights denied victims of incompetent doctors the right to sue, and its social security plan would have taken money away from current beneficiaries so that younger workers could gamble part of their contributions on the stock market.

To be sure, there's fantasy in every political campaign, because politicians have to say what they plan to do, and convince voters they can get it done; they have to pretend they can control events even though they know Congress might not cooperate and the budget projections might be wrong.

But the level of fantasy this year seems to me unusually high. Living at the border of two swing states, I see and read an awful lot of campaign advertising, and I'm astonished that each candidate seems to be ignoring not only his own skunk, but the other guy's skunk as well.

Gore has barely even mentioned the Republican congress. And though Bush raises the issue surreptitiously with phrases like "restoring decency to the White House," he hasn't seriously tried to morph Gore into Clinton. Those skunks in the living room are highly vulnerable points for each candidate, but these guys apparently smell no evil.

Like so much in political life, it leaves me shaking my head and saying, "Huh? What's going on here?"

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