'Action Al' might want to look back a little

Americans like things new. If we're not inventing things (light bulbs, phones, the Internet), we're reinventing our industries and ourselves (government, telecommunications, Madonna).

And thus American politics, always eager to please, follows suit. Bob Dole may have put it best in his wonderfully circular 1996 phrase, "It's all about the future, because that's where we're headed in this country."

In some ways this all makes perfect sense. After all, Democrat or Republican, let's see you argue with that Dole line. But as any average history student or "Star Trek" fan knows, the future exists not in a vacuum but on a continuum. History is the context from which the future unfolds. The two are linked.

And that's why whatever politicians say, campaigns are always more about the immediate past than they are about the future. It has always been this way.

People sometimes credit Ronald Reagan, the master of simultaneously looking forward and back, with the words, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" But he doesn't own the copyright.

This is standard operating procedure. In any campaign, regardless of what the media says, the real "issue" is almost always the record of the party in power. The incumbent defends the record and the challenging party attacks it. This fundamental dynamic has been Al Gore's advantage since this race began. It has not changed even as the themes, personas, and messages have changed wildly.

In many ways, if you are Al Gore it is hard to imagine a better opponent than George W. Bush. Not only are you presiding over good times, and not only does your opponent want to change the economic policies that brought prosperity - but he is the son of the guy your team beat eight years ago. What's more, he has proudly linked himself to his father's administration.

W. has basically done everything but put a big "kick me" sign on his own back.

But for some reason, as this race has moved forward, the Gore camp has decided to relegate the past eight years of history to - well, the dustbin of history. And the Bush folks have been smart enough not to leave it there. They've been recycling it and scoring points.

For the past week, the new, re-energized Mr. Bush has been happily blasting away at the past eight years for a variety of things: the failed Clinton-Gore energy policy, the weakened Clinton-Gore military, the Clinton-Gore education recession.

By next week, we'll probably be hearing about how the weakness of the American gymnastics team can be tied to the White House in a speech entitled, "Why should we be back-flipping to failure when we could be pole-vaulting to success?"

Meanwhile, the Gore campaign continues selling the same pseudo-populist message it has been selling since Los Angeles - "I'm for the people, not the powerful."

This surprisingly worked for a while. The Bush campaign seemed caught off guard at first.

They, like many of us, wondered how Mr. Gore, for all practical purposes the incumbent, could be advertising himself as an agent of change.

But Bush's people have since wised up and joined the party, figuring if Al thinks things need changing, why not go after a record he isn't interested in defending.

Experts may raise questions about all the "failures" Bush is outlining, but politics is always more about perception than reality, and you have to give it to the Bush campaign for understanding that. They'll frame the past eight years the way they see fit and hope it flies.

Part of this whole story is Ralph Nader. Gore, desperate not to lose voters to the Green Party's Don Quixote, has acquired some of his armor and become "Action Al," the fist-pumping defender of the public. He is going to stop the growing power of the monied interests.

But this message fails Gore. It calls to mind the fact that he was in office as their power grew and nullifies his best asset - the peace and prosperity that have become the status quo.

His strategy has taken what should be the implicit question of this race, "Why should you change leadership when times are good?" and made it into, "Which one of our ideas for change do you like best?"

The debates beginning next week will be interesting on two points. Will Bush continue to cite the "failures" of the Clinton-Gore administration? And more important, will Gore embrace the past eight years and defend them, or will he resume his populist stance?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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