Behind the tight race - economy vs. morality

All along it's been the same battle among the voters: the economy vs. morality. For years now we've seen this contest being played out in the public's attitudes toward President Clinton. And the vibrant economy clearly has prevailed - witness the high performance ratings Mr. Clinton has continued to receive even when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was hitting him the hardest.

So now we have a vice president who not only carries the political baggage of the president's behavior problems but must also answer for his 1996 fund-raising conduct, both inside and outside the White House. Will that be enough to sink him?

The other morning at breakfast a highly regarded and politically knowledgeable pollster - Andy Kohut - told us that if the Gore-Bush race is running nip-and-tuck (as it is now) at election time, "the economy would trump morality" with voters. Implied in this assessment, of course, is the assumption that the economy, itself, would remain strong and unaffected, basically, by the jittery stock market.

Indeed, history has clearly shown us that when the economy is going strong and, thus, the electorate is happy, the presidential incumbent holds a big and often decisive advantage. Gore is a de facto incumbent, representing the Clinton administration and its hopes of staying in the White House.

It's much, much too early to make a call on next November's election.

But one has to wonder why Democratic candidates from the top to the bottom aren't doing better if that strong economy is such a powerful force, at least at this time.

No one knows the political climate in all 50 states better than pollster Charles E. Cook Jr. But his latest findings show Bush and Gore in a dead heat in their drive for electoral votes and the Republicans holding control of both of the houses. Where is that mighty economic wind that's supposed to be blowing at the Democratic candidates' backs?

Yes, one has to wonder why, with the president's public aproval ratings being rated as high as 70 percent, his vice president was, as the primaries began, some 25 points behind Bush and is still no better than even with Bush in some polls and behind Bush a percentage point or two in other polls. Again, why isn't Gore benefiting more from the strong economy?

Back a while, polls showed that a factor called "Clinton fatigue" was pulling Gore down - that the public (including many who still gave Clinton high marks for the way he was doing his job) were tired of Clinton's behavior (and Gore's too) and were ready to make a change in leadership. So without knowing much about Bush, they turned to him. It was a desire for a change; and it was, basically, a vote for a better moral climate.

So why has Bush lost his lead?

I think some of those Democrats and independents who earlier had said they wanted Bush for president haven't liked him as they have gotten to know him better. The Bush personality, which is supposed to be so warm and attractive, didn't come off that way during his bitter battle with John McCain. Indeed, he's now being perceived by many voters as a bit arrogant. And in his half-smile they see a smirk.

These same voters who were moving away from Gore at first and saying they would choose Bush have been turned off by the Texan on second look. They doubtless are still available for Bush - but he's going to have to prove to them that he's a more likable, and smarter, fellow than the one who has been on public view in recent weeks.

I have my own theory on how this will all play out. (I'm reserving what is known as the "pundit's right" to change my mind later on.)

I think that in the end the "morality" factor will, this time, be enough to pretty much cancel out the economic factor and the American people will look very hard at both candidates and vote for the one they like better and who has shown - particularly in the debates - he would make the better leader.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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