What's made the run-up to the actual campaign interesting?at least to the 10 percent or so of the Americans who have bothered to pay any attention?is that in each party the contest has boiled down to an outsider-insider vs. an establishment frontman. True, neither outsider-insider is as much of an outsider as he maintains. McCain, who decries the special-interest-dominated campaign finance system, raised big bucks from lobbyists for the telecommunications, insurance, HMO, automotive, securities and computer industries. Bradley, who decries the special-interest-dominated campaign finance system, raised much of his campaign cash from Wall Street executives. How insurgent can either be?
Still, Republican McCain and Democrat Bradley have thrown a few pebbles of sand into the gears of coronation within their respective parties. They even sparked a few brief spasms of policy discourse: McCain, late in the game, questioned the GOP's love affair with supply-side tax cuts; Bradley, in his too-smug fashion, challenged the incrementalism of Clintonism. Neither would-be party pooper has offered fundamental alternatives, but they've tossed up more flak than the politerati once expected.
Actually, McCain's face-off with Bush is more an outsider-vs.-establishment clash than Bradley's competition with Gore. McCain's support of modest reform is utterly out of sync with the prevailing status-quo attitude of the Republican political class. Bradley's argument for reform agenda is not as foreign to the Democratic political class. (Democrats in the Senate, for instance, have rallied behind McCain's reform legislation; GOPers have not.) And McCain, by pushing antitobacco legislation in the Senate, has displayed more daring than Bradley ever did as a senator.
McCain, though, is following an unusual game plan for a Republican: whack away at special interests and assail Big Tobacco, one of his party's most reliable funders. It may not be a smart stratagem, but it's fun to watch. In the final pre-primary-season weeks, McCain pushed even further: he attacked Bush's tax cuts for being too generous to the rich. When was the last time a Republican complained about that? Other GOPers immediately pounced on him for waging class warfare, but McCain quipped, "Class warfare is when you want to take from the rich and give to the poor." He was rightfully pointing out that under Bush's tax plan, hundreds of billions of dollars that could be used for Social Security, Medicare and other programs that serve the middle class and the poor, would be zapped to the wealthiest Americans. (A third of Bush's $1.7 trillion tax cut will go to the top one percent?people making more than $319,000 a year?according to Citizens for Tax Justice.)
It's doubtful McCain can get far among Republicans by assailing tobacco, campaign money and big tax cuts. In fact, his quasi-maverick campaign made Bush seem an establishment Republican, not the role the Texas Governor set out to play. But this development probably won't hurt the guy. "Four months ago, George Bush was running as a compassionate conservative," GOP pundit-publisher Bill Kristol said last week. "It was a new kind of Republicanism... It was not going to be the old standard conservative establishment type of campaign. Now, he is running a totally orthodox Republican establishment campaign. He is the candidate of the Republican establishment and the conservative establishment."
Once upon a time, Republicans did look upon Bush's so-called compassionate conservatism with suspicion. Lamar Alexander dubbed Bush's slogan "weasel words." (These days, Alexander is a weasel-backer.) Dan Quayle, in disgust, ordered his staff never to use the term. And when Bush slapped the congressional Republicans last year for proposing to delay disbursing tax credits for the poor, many Republicans wondered what the party was stuck with. But Bush has come home. Stephen Moore, an analyst at the libertarian-conservative Cato Institute, put it this way: "McCain's attacks are actually helping Bush, because it makes him look like a Ronald Reagan supply-sider. This helps establish Bush's fiscally conservative credentials."
Bush has McCain on money?the Governor's positions are more in keeping with present-day Republican thinking. McCain's chance lies in Republicans voting for leadership over ideas, or for an oddball war-hero-jock, over the affable, cool kid on campus. But outsiders tend to lose, and no outsider has ever beaten an insider who has so much cash.
Bradley's problem is similar to McCain's: his purported outsiderism has failed to connect with the main constituencies of his party. That's partly because this outsider-challenger doesn't believe in coalition politics. Never has. As a senator, Bradley neither reached out to blocs of citizens nor worked with organized groups. He did talk passionately about race in America, but civil rights leaders in his home state of New Jersey rarely heard from him. Even if Bradley's positions (the campaign 2000 models) are closer than Gore's to those of traditional Democratic liberals (though not unionists), Gore, who's been visiting black churches and union halls for years, has played the constituency game better. Moreover, Bradley's supposedly outside approach to health care?subsidies for people to buy private health insurance?scores well for boldness but flops on actual details, for it strengthens the insurance industry. Bradley's effort is no Jerry Brown-like campaign aimed at energizing traditional Democratic blocs neglected by the centrist waverers of the party. Consequently, Bradley may be vanquished by an establishment candidate who both attacks Bradley for being too left and maintains better ties with the left-leaning elements of the Democratic electorate. It's a damn weird dynamic.