All along, we thought the central question of the 2000 presidential race was whether the longest sustained period of peace and prosperity will make America ignore the following:
1) that the stiff-all-over Democratic candidate reminds them of Hymie the Robot from the old "Get Smart!" series, and
2) that the stiff-below-the-waist sitting Democratic president is a set of glands with a liar wrapped around them.
Nope. Turns out -- and we thank the Democratic National Committee for setting the record straight -- the central question is: Do we want George W. Bush to kill our kids and eat them.
Or something like that, because these spots (coincidentally enough produced by the Gore campaign's ad team) certainly expose the Bush-Cheney ticket as the quintessence of all evil.
In two ads aired during the Republican convention, and three follow-ups to run in 17 contested states, Bush and Cheney are portrayed as diabolical rogues intent on starving and suffocating school kids, then cruelly denying them access to the healthcare system.
"George W. Bush opposed healthcare coverage for 200,000 children in need," says one spot.
"Houston is now the smog capital of the U.S.," says another.
"Schools now use smog meters to see if it's safe to play outside."
"The Bush plan protects polluters instead of our families."
"[Bush] sides with the big drug companies, the HMOs and the insurance industry . . . His plan protects special interests, instead of working families."
"[Cheney] was one of the few to vote against Head Start. He even voted against the school lunch program."
Get it? Satan and Little Satan, trying to destroy us. Quick! Exorcise them!
The problem is, nobody, save a few Democratic faithful, is screaming for exorcism. What they are screaming for is for 11 days a week of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
To the degree voters have even noticed George Dubya and Dick Cheney, here's what they think:
They kinda like the stupid one. And that other one, the bald one with the lip curl -- wasn't he in that Persian Gulf War? -- they kinda like him, too.
Yet here already is prototypical attack advertising, based on (if not necessarily truly reflective of) the GOP candidates' records.
Maybe it's understandable the Democrats have chosen these vulnerable areas to attack. They still own the healthcare issue, and Al Gore did invent the environment. But nobody out there in those 17 swing states much cares. Nobody.
What voters care about, and what they should be reminded of every 17 seconds between now and November, is that -- by jiminy -- they are better off than they were four years ago. And way better off than they were eight years ago, so why fix what ain't broke?
Trying to diminish two nice guys, no matter how legitimate the charges, will only fly back in Gore's face. Furthermore, it will make the Democrats look desperate and mean, which is the natural terrain of the Republicans. Furthermore, in the midst of post-convention euphoria that always gives the GOP a bump in the polls, such nasty posturing is spitting into the wind.
This is one time not to define a campaign with policy details on explosive issues. The race has barely started and Gore is already attacking reflexively, like the too-literal-thinking robot Hymie.
If he keeps it up, he'll miss becoming president, in the words of Maxwell Smart, "by that much."