After a storm-tossed primary season, the SS Bush and the SS Gore have sailed into their respective home ports to repair damage and replenish supplies. Both candidates are lying low, in part because the public needs relief from the ardors of the long season and in part because the candidates themselves need to adjust their battle plans.
Gore has an added reason for staying below the radar: He is not anxious to explain his presence at a Buddhist temple while the ushers were dumping the contents of the collection plates into his campaign van. On top of that, he is struggling to avoid the delicate matter of a newly discovered cache of White House e-mails, whose content may habituate him to beverages stronger than iced tea.
And there are always hard-to-manage events of unpredictably large national import, as, for example, the Elian Gonzalez matter. Gore, whose capacity for policy deconstruction and reinvention knows neither shame nor limits, broke with his own administration but then did precisely nothing to urge upon his chief the argument he had so conveniently adopted for public consumption.
The Republicans for their part did not cover themselves with glory on Elian. While the president mewed, incredibly, about his devotion to the rule of law, the GOP congressional party dithered. Bush was at least consistent, although sotto voce, in calling for a court hearing, apparently hoping that the Democrats would sooner or later hoist themselves on their own petard.
Clearly, the governor is more comfortable being a vector than a leader. Perhaps his caution will pay off come November, but moments like these remind us of what we miss about Ronald Reagan. Reagan knew a thing or two about winning elections, but he also knew how to win our hearts. While Clinton hid behind the skirts of his secretary of state and attorney general, the Gipper would have reminded us that the problem lay not in our immigration laws but in Fidel Castro’s tyranny. The man who launched his 1980 campaign in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty would have shamed public opinion into embracing Elian’s cause and taught us that no honorable or freedom-loving nation would for a minute consider sending that darling boy back to Fidel’s gulag.
No doubt Governor Bush has other worries on his mind, not least the selection of a running mate. The number-crunchers tell us that the fall contest will be decided in four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. Bush, who starts with a stronger electoral base than Gore, can in theory win in November if he carries at least two of these, even while effectively conceding New York and California to his opponent. That is why Tom Ridge, who is both Catholic and popular in his home state, is being touted by some as an attractive possibility. This temptation should be resisted.
Ridge has put himself on the wrong side of the abortion issue and in so doing has raised the ire of at least one Pennsylvania bishop, who has banned him from speaking on church-owned property within his diocese—not exactly the kind of symbolic message that ought to be conveyed in a year when the Catholic vote is thought to be essential to electoral victory in the fall. Catholic bishops wisely refrain from electoral activism, but Catholics pay serious mind when their shepherds exercise the unquestioned authority of their ecclesiastical office. It is precisely Ridge’s Catholicism that would cost Bush the election: A significant portion of the Catholic vote would stay at home or cast a symbolic ballot for Pat Buchanan.
Having said that, it is also the case that Bush need not pick an ardent pro-lifer as a running mate. But if he picks someone to his left on the issue, he will have to trumpet his own defense of the unborn with greater passion and eloquence than he has thus far evinced. Besides, the vice-presidential selection process will be read against the ongoing effort (supported by, among others, Governor Ridge) to weaken or eliminate the pro-life GOP platform language.
This quadrennial undertaking on the part of the Republican country-club set is invariably sticky and embarrassing to those who keep hoping against hope that the abortion issue will somehow, well, go away. It will not, no matter how many times Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, and Peter Jennings complain about Republican opposition to Roe v. Wade. If Bush concedes an inch on the platform language while simultaneously picking a “dry” as a running mate, he might as well pack it in now.