WASHINGTON -- In a revealing column this past week, reporter Bob
Novak quoted a political operative who said, "When the Democrats get in
trouble, they circle the wagons. When the Republicans get in trouble,
they head for the tall grass."
Truer words were never spoken. For the past two weeks, Republican
presidential hopeful George W. Bush -- and his campaign staff -- have
gone from political geniuses to all but also-rans. The Bush campaign,
now in the media crosshairs, has gone through a rough two-week patch.
Verbal gaffes, open microphones and a leisurely campaign schedule began
to generate a drumbeat of negative coverage sowing doubts in the minds
of voters. Unfortunately for the Austin team, this downturn coincided
with a reinvigorated Democratic ticket that began pounding away on
social safety nets and working families.
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Now, Bush is being beaten-up on the editorial pages and anonymously
by fellow Republicans in news accounts for his failure to agree to the
three 90-minute debates demanded by the self-appointed Commission on
Presidential Debates. Bush instead wants a one-hour debate hosted by
Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press" for next Tuesday, a one-hour
debate Oct. 3 on CNN's Larry King show, and one of the commission's
debates, the Oct. 17 match at Washington University in St. Louis.
Now tell me, with their ticket being politically assaulted from all
sides, how would the Democrats react? Would Gore staffers hiding behind
unnamed titles question the campaign publicly? No, they wouldn't, and
they didn't. Throughout the months, Gore trailed and his campaign went
through a series of reinventions; they kept up the attack teams and
nasty news leaks to keep the race within reach until they rebounded and
sprinted slightly ahead.
So where are the Republican James Carvilles when you need them?
Where are the conservative Paul Begalas zeroing in to trash the
opposition? Don't the Republicans want to win? What's with this
instinct for the capillary that haunts the GOP?
Why isn't anyone making the case that Bush is well within his rights
to not accept the haughty demands of this commission, which no one has
appointed and is answerable to no one but themselves? Why isn't anyone
pointing out that in 1996, this vaunted commission proposed three
presidential debates, only to have the Clinton and Dole campaigns
negotiate them down to two? Where are the op-ed pieces asking why
editorial writers didn't seem to mind the Clinton snub of the commission
four years ago but are so incensed now?
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Who is making the argument that the commission's "tradition" has only
existed for 12 years and that the debate formats and schedules have
varied widely over that time? When will someone argue that the rules
the commission adopted to hold all debates in liberal college towns --
including the John F. Kennedy Library in Massachusetts for crying out
loud -- is so stacked against Bush, he'd be foolish to accept it at face
value? Which Republican pollster is going to ask how the citizens, "not
aligned with any campaign" will be screened for the commission's debates
using the "town meeting" approach -- and who gets to choose them?
Which political pundit is going to question the press why it's
writing that Bush is ducking Gore, but Gore is not ducking NBC's Tim
Russert, who beat up the vice president pretty well in a recent edition
of "Meet the Press?" And where are the videotape segments of Gore
agreeing to these debates -- but then apparently changing his mind when
Bush took him up on his offer? And shouldn't someone ask why the
networks, who are supposed to cover the presidential campaign, have said
they won't show up Tuesday if Bush meets Russert at NBC? Anyone think
to pose the scenario of what the press would do if the roles were
It may be too late anyway. Most people here think that Bush will
have to give in on the three commission debates putting him further on
the defensive than he already is. Perhaps after Bush makes his visual
statement on Tuesday, he'll find a graceful exit strategy to bow to the
commission's wishes. But momentum and precious time is being lost.
Bush could still recover with a strong debate performance but,
somewhere along the line, a chorus of supporters should have been
helping him out loudly and often. But that's the real difference,
apparently, between Republicans and Democrats.
Neal Lavon covers politics and other issues for the Voice of America in Washington. The views he expresses are his own.