What's the Difference?
If George W. Bush would spell it out, he has a fighting chance

Stephen C. Meyer
World, October 21, 2000
Discovery Institute

With two debates down and three weeks to go, George W. Bush will soon face a media disadvantage. The debates have allowed many voters to hear his words directly. But on the campaign trail, he is at the mercy of liberal journalists.

To prevent the media from filtering his message, as they did in the weeks after the Republican convention, Mr. Bush must implement a new strategy. He must find ways not only to state, but also to dramatize, his message and his central differences with Al Gore.

Consider how he might do this in a key battleground state. In western Michigan, air pollution wafting across the lake from Chicago has led the EPA to impose draconian fuel-emission standards on motorists. Consequently, Michigan now labors under the highest fuel costs in the country. Yet western Michigan's air quality will not appreciably improve because of these standards: Most of its air pollution will still come from Chicago. Michigan motorists understandably resent these irrational and costly regulations. Mr. Bush should go to Michigan and demand their repeal.

While there, he should head over to Detroit and read portions of the Kyoto environmental accord (which Vice President Gore supports) imposing limitations on U.S. fossil-fuel use. He should also read portions of Mr. Gore's environmental treatise to autoworkers. The media will not be able to resist the drama created by such an overt confrontation. Moreover, the act itself will speak volumes about the differences between the two candidates and will heighten fears about the probable economic impact of Mr. Gore's environmental extremism, perhaps especially with soccer moms (who like their SUVs!) and labor voters in key Midwestern industrial states.

Mr. Bush could then go to Washington, D.C., for a press conference with leaders of the Boy Scouts in front of the Supreme Court building. There he could pledge to appoint justices who will uphold constitutional guarantees of freedom of association. He should insist that the court allow private groups to choose leaders who share their values.

Or how about a speech at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., criticizing the Clinton-Gore Justice Department's suit against Microsoft because of its negative impact on high-tech industry and the stock market? Washington, another battleground state, has 400,000 Microsoft stockholders.

Mr. Bush has staged some "photo-ops" to emphasize his positions, but these events have lacked the drama and risk that demand media attention. The media can ignore a positive feel-good photo-op, but attacks require reporters to elicit a Gore reaction and then report the fight.

Mr. Bush can also attract attention by co-opting media prejudice. Many reporters assume that Mr. Bush must conceal his views on social issues to win. If the Bush campaign made abortion a more prominent issue, even if only by advocating new incremental reforms such as banning post-viability abortions or providing ultrasound equipment for crisis pregnancy clinics, many in the media would seize on his perceived "extremism." Unwittingly, they would highlight a difference that favors Mr. Bush. Roughly three of every four Americans have consistently supported banning late-term abortions. If the media link Mr. Bush with this large group of extremists, he should—by all means—let them. Mr. Gore, the real extremist, has not even repeated Bill Clinton's promise to keep abortion legal, but to help make it rare. Mr. Bush can win votes with proposals to reduce the numbers.

Forcing—or enticing—the media to cover Mr. Bush on issues that favor him will establish critical ideological differences between the two candidates. Dramatic campaign events will particularize the consequences of ideological differences in ways that will connect with the electorate. Given the media's selective coverage, the Bush campaign must create events that convey the message in the medium of the event itself, and then follow the events with ads that report the stated message of the event. Gov. Bush's dad, with his appearance at Boston Harbor in 1988, showed how campaign events can embody message.

In presidential elections since 1968 Republicans have won whenever they have effectively highlighted major ideological differences with their Democratic counterparts. Republicans lost only in those elections (1976, 1992, 1996) in which Democratic candidates minimized, or were allowed to minimize, such differences.

George W. Bush's stump speech shows that he recognizes the need to draw sharp differences with Al Gore on the central issues of the campaign. Nevertheless, merely stating his differences with Mr. Gore will not position him to benefit from the natural conservative sympathies of the majority of the electorate. He must ensure that the electorate perceives these differences during the last weeks of the campaign. To do that, he must pierce the media's electronic curtain by dramatizing his differences with Mr. Gore in ways the media can't filter or ignore. If he does, he will win the only debate that matters.

—Mr. Meyer is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle