Oct. 9, 2000 -- With his truthfulness under fire and his opponent gaining in the polls, Al Gore’s surrogates are openly questioning George W. Bush’s intelligence.
Since this weekend, the Gore team has been ratcheting up its efforts to paint Bush as “confused,” “bumbling,” “babbling” and “ignorant.”
“George W. Bush seems incapable of talking about the important issues in this campaign in a coherent way,” Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani said today, just one in a series of statements from the Democratic candidate’s team drawing attention to the Texas governor’s mispronunciations and misstatements on the campaign trail.
“George Bush is routinely unable to string together a coherent sentence to explain his own proposals,” another Gore spokesman, Douglas Hattaway, said in an earlier statement this weekend. “Americans will decide whether Bush’s uncertain command of the facts and his garbled language bear on his ability to be an effective leader.”
Hattaway’s criticism came after the Texas governor bobbled an explanation of marginal income tax rates at a campaign event in Florida. Bush has fumbled numbers and uttered seemingly incomprehensible statements on the stump many times before. But Saturday marked the first time the Gore campaign seized on one of its opponent’s gaffes and used it as a pretext for directly challenging his intellectual capacity.
Only 24 hours earlier, Hattaway said, “We don’t attack Bush for his crimes against the English language.” But Gore advisers took to the airwaves the following day to continue the attack.
“Bush ought to be held to presidential standards, and what he did yesterday didn’t meet up to Dan Quayle standards,” Fabiani said on CNN’s Late Edition. “Governor Bush is incapable of explaining his own positions on the issues coherently.”
“He is dangerously ignorant,” Paul Begala, an aide to the vice president, said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “He doesn’t know his own ideas, much less the facts on the table.”
The Best Defense …
The brazen line of attack is the vice president’s response to the Bush camp’s continuing assault on his honesty. Pouncing on a number of inaccuracies in statements made by Gore in last Tuesday’s presidential debate, Bush advisers also took to the airwaves Sunday — to accuse the vice president of what they charged was a “disturbing pattern of exaggeration.”
“Unlike Al Gore, Governor Bush doesn’t just make up facts,” Bush communications director Karen Hughes said on FOX News Sunday.
“This is a man who has difficulty telling the truth,” Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, said on Meet the Press. “And that is a dangerous thing for the president of the United States, who has to negotiate with foreign leaders and negotiate with Congress.”
That line of attack also represents a significant ramping-up of the rhetoric, moving far beyond needling the vice president for his infamous interview in which he appeared to claim credit for “creating the Internet.”
Gore campaign officials say spokesmen and surrogates — but not the vice president himself — will continue to raise questions about whether Bush meets “presidential standards,” but the Republican candidate’s advisers say that strategy would be a “big mistake.”
“There’s a huge and significant difference between making up stories and facts and an occasional slip of the tongue,” said Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan.
‘The English Patient’
Bush’s slips of the tongue, however, have been far from occasional. His linguistic gaffes, in fact, are as common as they are comical.
From mispronunciations to incoherent meandering on key policy issues, Bush has given his opponent more than ample fodder for its new offensive. He has, for example, vowed to “use our technology to enhance uncertainty abroad,” promised “to be a president who hails success as well as failure,” and pledged to “feed faces all across the world.”
One of Bush’s less eloquent linguistic ramblings came in January as he offered this explanation of national defense policy in the post-Cold War era:
“When I was young and coming up, it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who the ‘they’ were,” he told a puzzled group of voters in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “It was us vs. them and it was clear who ‘them’ was. Today, we’re not so sure who the ‘they’ are, but we know they’re there.”
The Gore campaign also seized on Bush’s imprecise answer last Thursday to a Wisconsin woman who asked what she should tell a friend in order to convince her to vote for Bush in November.
“Tell her to keep an open mind,” Bush joked. Then, attempting a more serious response, he said, “No. Tell her governments don’t create wealth … You know that.”
“Here’s what I’d tell her,” the candidate tried again. “Fellow’s got a pretty good record and he’s done in office what he said he would.”
After arguing that a change was needed in order to get “something done” on Medicare and Social Security, Bush conceded, “I’m groping for the right answer, you can tell — weaving around.”
Virtue or Vulnerability?
Responding to criticism that he was stiff and less than inspiring on the stump, Gore sought to turn a potential vulnerability into a virtue.
“I know I won’t always be the most exciting politician,” the vice president said at the Democratic Convention in August, “But … I will work for you every day and I will never let you down.”
That line became a standard refrain for Gore on the campaign trail.
Bush is mimicking that strategy as he makes the implicit argument that his plainspoken, if often misspoken, manner shows him to be a man of the people.
“Sometimes, you know, I might mangle a syllable,” he told voters at a town hall meeting in Reynoldsburg, Ohio last Wednesday, intentionally mispronouncing the word. “Get it?”
Hughes later acknowledged that the line, which drew a big laugh from the audience, was something Bush had come up with for the debate but didn’t have a chance to use.
“I think most normal Americans, if they had a microphone in their face 18 hours a day, would find themselves making slips of the tongue,” added Sullivan. “It’s very different from making slips of the truth and that’s the big difference between these two candidates.”
Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice acknowledged, however, that she is helping the candidate practice the names of leaders and nations in the Balkans — hardly a surprise given he has confused Slovakia with Slovenia and incorrectly identified citizens of Greece as “Grecians” and people from Kosovo as “Kosovarians.”
With Gore advisers continuing to raise questions about the Republican candidate’s intellectual capacity and Bush aides insisting the vice president’s credibility is fair game, the two campaigns are in full attack mode. And, as Election Day fast approaches, there is little chance for a cease-fire.