By Marsha Mercer
WASHINGTON — A year ago last March, the Republican National Committee had fun sending someone in a “pander bear” suit to crash a Hillary Clinton fundraiser at a Washington hotel.
Democrat Clinton, Republicans said, was pandering to voters. Horrors!
The Republicans were borrowing a page from the 1992 presidential campaign of the late Paul Tsongas who accused Bill Clinton during the Democratic primaries of being a “pander bear.” Tsongas said that Clinton “will say anything, do anything to get votes.”
It’s time to bring back the bear. No, better clone the bear.
Hillary Clinton has joined likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain in pandering to voters with a “gas tax holiday,” a silly plan to suspend the 18.4-cent a gallon federal tax on gasoline from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Economists say it would drive up the demand — and price — of gas and make more money for big oil companies. It’s also not going to happen. Even Congress isn’t that dumb.
But “gas tax holiday” has a nice ring to it. The plan may be bad economics, but it’s good emotion. Who’s against giving families a little relief from rising gas prices? The candidates thus demonstrate that they care about people like us.
Caring, if you hadn’t noticed, is crucial in a president — or rather, in a presidential candidate. Ask the current occupant of the Oval Office who ran as a “compassionate conservative” in 2000. Ask his dad. The first George Bush declared during the 1992 campaign: “Message: I care.”
Barack Obama chose not to join the gas tax holiday party. Clinton said that showed Obama doesn’t understand the plight of ordinary Americans. She’s still flogging the idea of Obama as an elitist.
But Obama won plaudits — and a superdelegate switched from supporting Clinton to him — for resisting the gas tax pander. So, in a way, could it also be pandering to refuse to go along with a shameless pander?
It’s curious that Obama supported temporarily suspending the Illinois gas tax in 2000 when he was a state senator. Last week, he scoffed that the “Clinton-McCain proposal” would save drivers about 30 cents a day. “That’s their big solution,” he said.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that a summer gas tax holiday would mean only about $30 for the average family. And Obama went up with a TV ad attacking the status quo in Washington, never a bad move.
“That’s typical of how Washington works,” Obama says in the ad. “There’s a problem, everybody’s upset about gas prices. Let’s find some short-term quick fix, that we can say we did something even though we’re not really doing anything ...”
Obama also said in the ad that people need as president “someone who’s going to tell you the truth.”
Ah, truthfulness. It’s next to caring in the qualities we demand in presidential candidates.
McCain credits his straight talk as key to his surprising strength in hypothetical match ups with Clinton and Obama, despite the deep unpopularity of President Bush and the Republican Party. Only about one in four voters has a positive view of the party or Bush, according to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News Poll last week.
And yet, that poll and others have found McCain within striking distance of Clinton or Obama, despite the fact that McCain has not distanced himself from Bush. McCain is in the Bush camp on trade policy, tax cuts and the war in Iraq. McCain’s market approach to health care borrows elements from Bush’s proposals.
Pollsters, trying to explain McCain’s strength, noted that he rates higher than either Clinton or Obama on a “shares my values” question.
Fifty-four percent of voters said McCain shares their values, while 46 percent said Clinton does and 45 percent said Obama does, according to the Journal-NBC poll.
But how do people know which values they share with McCain? When he ran for president eight years ago, McCain said the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion should stand. Now he favors its repeal.
In 2000, he denounced the Rev. Jerry Falwell as an agent of intolerance. In 2006, moving towards another White House run, he was commencement speaker at Falwell’s Liberty University.
In January, McCain backed away from his own immigration bill, saying he wouldn’t vote for it.
Where’s the bear?
X Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard. News Service.