Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
17 - 23 August 2000
Issue No. 495
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Two for the road

By James Zogby

Republican presidential nominee George W Bush emerged from his party's convention with polls giving him a substantial 17 per cent lead over his Democratic rival Al Gore. Pre-convention polls had been showing Bush with a smaller four per cent lead over Gore. These same polls had Bush winning the support of more than 90 per cent of all Republican voters. Confident that his core Republican base was unified behind his candidacy and that of his solidly conservative vice-presidential running mate Dick Cheney, Bush sought to use the convention to reach out to "middle of the road" voters.

Seen in this context, the Republican Convention was a masterfully crafted media event. For the millions of Americans who watched it or for those who followed news coverage of the four-day meeting, the Bush-led Republican Party was seen as a "unified, multi-ethnic and rather optimistic" affair.

The themes of "inclusion and moderation" worked, bumping Bush's lead from 4 per cent to 17 per cent over Gore and substantially increasing the Republicans' support among women, independents and some ethnic and minority groups.

Bush's sunny disposition and penchant for a positive message have received favourable treatment in the nation's media. Some analysts believe that the "softer" treatment given to Bush accounts in part for his lead over Gore. A recent study by a media watchdog group and a poll by Voter.com establish this point. The media study demonstrates that Bush has received twice as many positive media references as Gore. The Voter.com poll establishes that when voters are asked what impact media coverage has had on their attitudes toward the candidates, 50 per cent say that it makes them "more likely to support George W Bush," while 43 per cent say that the coverage makes them "less likely support Al Gore." It was in an effort to change this negative dynamic that Gore named Senator Joseph Lieberman as his vice-presidential running mate this week. There are some factors to consider in evaluating this development. First and foremost is the timing of his announcement. Normally the choice of a vice-presidential candidate is not announced until the week of the convention. Bush left his convention on Friday to begin a week-long campaign trip he had hoped would continue the positive media coverage of his candidacy right up to the start of the Democratic Convention. By leaking the announcement of Lieberman to the media 7.00am Monday morning (even before calling the senator to notify him of the decision) and then making the formal announcement on Tuesday and travelling back to the senator's hometown for yet another event on Wednesday, Gore captured 72 hours of prime news coverage. Bush's tour became "old news." The story was all Lieberman.

While the focus of the Lieberman nomination in the Arab World was understandably on the senator's very problematic voting record on Middle East issues, here in the United States the focus was elsewhere. Obviously there was the drama associated with the fact that he was the first American Jew to run for national office. Comparisons were made with other firsts: John F Kennedy, the first Catholic to win the presidency, and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice-president. Attention was given to the fact that the senator was not only Jewish, but also a devout and observant Jew. This coupled with his moral crusades in the Senate against "immorality" in Hollywood and on television and his strong rebuke of President Bill Clinton's behaviour in the Monica Lewinsky affair earned Lieberman accolades as "the conscience of the Senate" and "a voice of morality and integrity."

While some commentators suggested that Gore may have named Lieberman to run with him to "inoculate" his campaign against Clinton's scandals, another simpler explanation can be given. Lieberman, well-liked and respected and a religious Jew, helped Gore change the subject and tone of press coverage. The impact was an immediate shift in the national discussion of the 2000 campaign. An early Gallup poll (though of questionable merit) showed Gore-Lieberman closing the gap with Bush-Cheney.

There are some negatives and positives associated with the Lieberman nomination. A more complete sense of its impact will only become clear in the weeks to come, but some factors can already be observed. On the positive side, Lieberman can certainly help Gore win back support from middle-of-the-road independents. The senator is a leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He has at times even sided with the Republican majority in the Senate, for example supporting school vouchers and some privatisation of social security. He is also known for his hawkish position on matters of national defense. Lieberman supports controversial missile defense systems and he, like Gore, was one of only 10 Democrats who supported military action against Iraq in 1991.

On the negative side, Lieberman's conservative stances on these and other issues may not help Gore unify the Democratic base of more liberal voters. The same poll, noted above, that showed Bush winning the support of 90 per cent of Republican voters, showed Gore with only 70 per cent support among Democrats. So while Bush could afford to make the effort to reach out to the centre of the political spectrum, a similar move by Gore might prove risky unless matched by an effort to firm up core Democratic support. In response to this dilemma, the Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, a liberal, has been aggressively pursuing alienated Democratic groups. Nader's standing in the polls is now only at 6 per cent, but much of that comes at the expense of the Gore campaign.

Another difficulty the Lieberman nomination may present to the Gore effort has been noted in a number of papers and that is the impact it may have on the small but, in some states, not insignificant Arab-American community. This is not a matter of the senator's religion, rather it is a function of his voting record. Joseph Lieberman has in the past been a sponsor of a number of troubling legislative initiatives, including those that conflicted with the Clinton-led Middle East peace effort. Arab-Americans have expressed legitimate concerns over the senator's past actions. At the same time, they note some positive positions taken by Lieberman and observe some changes already under way in the senator's thinking.

On the one hand, Lieberman, known for his integrity, has been quite forceful in supporting Arab-Americans rightful place in US politics. In 1992, when some pro-Israel activists were attempting to block Arab-American involvement in the Clinton-Gore campaign, it was Lieberman who demanded and secured their inclusion. The senator has also stood up against those who sought to block a number of Senate initiatives in support of the recognition of the rights of American Muslims. In fact, one Arab-American foreign policy analyst recently observed that the Lieberman nomination may now open some doors previously closed to Arab-Americans.

The Jerusalem Post, an English-language Israeli paper, noted with dismay the fact that the senator has now changed his position regarding the immediate move of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This change, however, began even before Lieberman received the nomination for vice-president. It was reported that when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak approached Lieberman and asked him to press the US administration for the immediate move of the embassy following the collapse of the Camp David talks, Lieberman cautioned Barak that the time was not right to do so. Lieberman has also expressed strong opposition to the efforts of some major Jewish organisations to secure the freedom of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

The positives and negatives of this nomination will continue to be weighed in the days and weeks ahead. As the news settles in and the Democratic Convention plays out this week, polls will show the extent to which Gore has been able to change the dynamic of this campaign. It will no doubt be a strenuous uphill battle, but observers recall that George Bush in 1988 overcame a similar 17 per cent deficit and defeated Michael Dukakis in that year's presidential contest. All eyes, therefore, will be riveted on the Democratic Convention to see whether or not Gore's show can match or better the Republican effort in Philadelphia.


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