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Open-Mike Nightmare

In a presidential contest so close there's no room for mistakes, Dubya made a "major league" error. It gave Gore the lead -- and may send George back to the Bush leagues.

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"There's Adam Clymer, major-league asshole from the New York Times."

"Oh, yeah. He is. Big-time."

And so, on Labor Day 2000, in Naperville, Illinois, George W. Bush's quest for the White House came to an end. It wasn't much as presidential-campaign turning points go: a two-line exchange between running mates that had nothing to do with the governance of the United States, a two-line exchange that no one ever would have heard were it not for the most dangerous tool in politics -- the open mike. But on the most important day of the campaign, that two-line exchange was all Al Gore and Joe Lieberman needed to solidify their post-convention surge in the polls and lock up the election. It's over.

In modern presidential campaigns, the candidate in the lead on Labor Day always wins, and Bush and Gore woke that morning tied in most polls. In a race so close, there's no room for mistakes -- but the very first thing Bush did that day was make a big one. It didn't seem like a big deal at first, and I didn't think much of it when I got an urgent cell-phone call telling me what Bush had got caught saying. Was anyone actually naïve enough to think that politicians don't talk about reporters in such terms every day, that Bill Clinton hasn't made such comments about at least a few Times staffers? When I worked in the Senate and Adam Clymer was the Times' congressional correspondent, I heard many Republicans, as well as some Democrats, say that sort of thing about him all the time. Bush's comment was actually one of the cleanest versions I've heard.

Most pundits were quick to point out that criticizing a reporter wasn't likely to get Bush into too much trouble with a public that doesn't hold the media in very high regard. But the specifics of what he said don't matter at all. He didn't say anything racist, sexist, or homophobic. He didn't get caught saying something provably wrong about something important. He got caught using a word most voters use on a regular basis about someone most voters surely could have guessed he didn't like.

The Clymer incident was the final turning point of the campaign because the message the public took from the two-day cycle of the story -- not so much in newspapers, which mostly buried it, but from the constant rolling and rerolling of the videotape -- was that Bush blundered. And he blundered, to borrow a phrase, big-time. Big-time enough to lead the network newscasts. And blundering was the one thing Bush could not afford to be caught doing.

By the end of the week, Republican insiders were airing their complaints about Bush's campaign in the Times -- standard operating procedure not when party operatives think your campaign is in trouble but when they think it's dead.

There was already a suspicion that Bush is a blunderer. He'd already had more than his share of malapropisms and awkward moments, beginning, way back before the New Hampshire primary, when he failed a videotaped quiz on the names of foreign heads of state. Never mind that most of the candidates in the field then would have failed it, that most of us in the media would have failed it. In a very close campaign, nothing matters more than luck, and the distribution of luck is never fair. Late in a close campaign, when that very small, very skittish group of short-attention-span types called undecided voters is finally focusing on the election, it can make them wonder if a candidate knows what he's doing. Bob Abrams would probably be a United States Senator today if he hadn't muttered the word fascist when he had run out of other adjectives to describe Al D'Amato in the final stretch of the 1992 New York Senate campaign.

In the aftermath of the open-mike gaffe, the notion that Bush is in over his head could suddenly make perfect sense to those undecided voters. And now that they were paying attention, Bush was desperately attempting to set up single-network talk-show alternatives to full-blown multi-network debates. He couldn't have looked more afraid of debating Gore, and his operatives were surprised to discover that Gore's repeated pledge to debate "anywhere, anytime" couldn't be dragged back to haunt Gore when they came up with their too-cute strategy of trying to turn their debate avoidance into proof that Gore can't be trusted. The Bush debate proposal was so obviously designed to get Gore to break his word that Gore paid no price with editorial writers or voters by immediately turning down the plan.

Then, just as Bush was losing the debate about the debates, he rushed out a proposal for a prescription-drug benefit for Medicare that he should have, and could have, introduced months ago -- essentially the same proposal that Democratic senator John Breaux cobbled together with Republican Bill Frist and bipartisan support two years ago. Waiting until the week of Labor Day left him looking like he was merely offering a counterproposal to Gore's popular, and more generous, plan. Then, when Gore handed out an impressive-looking book detailing his budget plan, Bush offered only unconvincing assurances that his big tax cut was going to be just great for everyone, not only the rich.

By the end of the week, when Republican insiders knew how much the open-mike mistake had done to cement Bush's image as a blunderer, they started airing their complaints about his campaign in the New York Times, not exactly their favorite newspaper. This is standard operating procedure not when party operatives think your campaign is in trouble but when they think it's dead. (When they think you're in trouble, they offer you advice privately; when they think you're dead, they go public with all the great advice you ignored privately.) All their complaints referred to choices made before the Clymer incident -- from putting Cheney on the ticket to buying TV ads attacking Gore -- but they were only dug up by reporters after it happened. The insiders know there's nothing for them to save but their reputations.

There was a lot of guessing about what this election was going to be about: impeachment, Clinton fatigue, campaign-finance reform, the economy. Now it's about Bush's competence: Is he up to the job? With such a thin résumé in government -- one and a half terms as governor of Texas -- Bush can convince voters of his competence only by demonstrating a flawless policy fluency in the debates. Which won't happen, even if the debates do. Instead, Gore will keep droning on about his policy positions, knowing that he sounds as boring as ever, but also as competent. Bush will keep talking about restoring honor and integrity to the White House, which has nothing to do with what this election is now about. When he does talk policy, he'll be on the defensive, responding to Gore instead of taking the lead on issues. The more Bush has to talk about policy, the more incompetent he'll sound. So as the campaign heads into the fall -- and passes the point at which no recent front-runner has faced an upset -- Bush must choose between talking about honor and sounding irrelevant or talking about policy and sounding incompetent. In other words, it's over.


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