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Picking a President: style or substance?

By George Sumner - posted Saturday, 15 July 2000

What do Americans look for in choosing a leader? Someone knowledgeable on the issues, an intellectual powerhouse who will be a driving force behind the Administration's policies? Or do they seek a manager, a figurehead who will articulate the general principles but leave the details to the appointed officials and experts? Either of these differing styles of leadership, has pit falls: one can leave the candidate looking too remote or aloof while the other can lack a statesmanlike quality. If newspaper reports are anything to go by, this year Americans face such a choice between the more intense Vice President and the smirking Governor of Texas.

A recent article in the New York Times portrayed Al Gore as a candidate controlling every part of his campaign, even his campaign logo. In substance, Gore is seen as dominating his advisors – a man in whose presence no expert will be infallible. His grasp on each issue was evident in the primary debates. For Gore to have such a strong command should come as no surprise, he was raised the son of a Senator later serving himself as a Congressman and Senator before becoming Vice President.

You'd think such knowledge is what people want from a leader. It must be reassuring to have a Chief Executive who knows what he's talking about inside out and demonstrates a level of intelligence and competence. I'm sure such qualities would poll well if you asked voters how important they were in choosing a President but Gore's strengths have not always worked to broaden his appeal.


The trouble is that being a smart-alec doesn't win friends. Gore's meticulous approach makes him come across as the perfect boy scout, irritatingly flawless in his reliability. An article from the New Republic has explained that people don't like Gore because they think he "tends to be hectoring and condescending", a much different sort of dislike from the intense and partisan dislike right wingers have of Bill Clinton. Such a portrayal of Gore makes it harder for him to appeal to mainstream voters.

It has been said that Gore has been groomed as a candidate since his schooldays. Bush, himself the product of a bigger political dynasty, joked about this on the Jay Leno Show. To portray Gore as the product of a political heritage hits two negative points: elitism, a child brought up as a Washington insider, educated shoulder to shoulder with other high-status kids; and that he is driven by family expectation rather than personal belief.

Gore has made an effort to change this image and broaden his populist appeal. This has included moving the campaign headquarters to Tennessee, sporting casual clothes, and taking on a more congenial style. In his biography he emphasises that his parents were not wealthy, and that he was brought up with a normal childhood in Tennessee.

Governor Bush, on the other hand, does not have the same problem as Gore – in fact he seems to revel in his non-intellectual image. It's worrying that someone running for the most powerful office in the world takes pride in his lack of curiosity. Yet by playing up to this image, Bush is able to advance his folksy everyday-guy soundbite-friendly persona. Such presentation counteracts the potential attacks on his elite upbringing: grandson of a Senator, son of a President, educated at both Harvard and Yale.

The image also indicates his style of leadership. Rather than attempting to get on top of every issue, Bush relies heavily on his advisors. He takes the view that knowledge and expertise can be brought in, with the Chief Executive leading simply on a level of general principles. The problem is that voters don't really know what they are electing, the candidate or his appointed advisors.

The Bush approach comes with its own risks, showing a candidate not yet ready for primetime. His vulnerability has been shown in gaffes, like when he was unable to name numerous foreign leaders, or pronouncing tactical weapons as 'tacular weapons'. Such mistakes hit Bush's weakest spot, given that prior to 1994 he never held public office, and, unlike his father, Bush Jr. was no scholar, athlete or war hero. President Bush served 8 years as Vice President, had been a Congressman before that, and also held posts such as Director of the CIA and Ambassador to the United Nations. His achievements put him in a different league as a statesman from his son. Just what is it that qualifies Bush Jr., other than the name, for the highest office?


Although Bush seems to enjoy his regular-guy persona, he is obviously troubled by criticisms that he is an empty suit or puppet controlled by advisors, consultants and donors. Recently he gave a series of policy speeches to flesh out the details of his platform, an attempt to show substance beyond the soundbites, and gravitas beyond the grin. However, by offering more detail on his policy, he merely gave the Gore team more to pull apart. Gore counterattacked with speeches showing his own strength as a policy wonk, and portraying Bush's plans as 'risky'.

Yet all this talk of a risky candidate does not seem to be hurting Bush. In a recent CNN/Time poll more voters though of Bush than Gore as a strong and decisive leader. Such a finding is surprising given Bush's apparent deference to his advisors. When you think that such a shaky grasp of the issues can get such high approval, it's no wonder that the Governor always has a smirk on his face.

Bush's current favourability in the polls can be explained partly by the fact that he is a chief executive, whereas Gore is still in the shadow of the President. One school of thought says that once Gore becomes the official candidate at the Convention in LA, he will come into his own. Once the full campaign season kicks in, Gore's combative style and substantive clout will help him as it did in the primaries. The campaign will become more focused, looking at the policies in more detail, and examining the candidates' command of them in debate. The general likeability of the candidate will be less prominent – though not unimportant – in the voters' criteria for President.

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About the Author

George Sumner is a Lawyer based in London.

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