The 2000 Races

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:24

    A lot of us snickered when Al Gore's campaign manager Donna Brazile said that Gore would win the presidency with the "four pillars" of the Democratic party?African-Americans, other minorities, women and labor. For one thing, it's kind of a Golden Rule in DC journalism circles that you don't win elections by sounding like Chairman Mao. For another, once you take out women (who are too varied to serve as a "pillar" of anything), you have a politics that's typical of the Democratic party circa, say, 1991?pitched to about four percent of the population.

    But on sober reflection, what are the "pillars" of the Republican Party? Entrepreneurs and Christians. Any entrepreneur who's dissatisfied with the business environment that's prevailed under Clinton isn't much of an entrepreneur. Any Christian who's satisfied with what the Republican Congress has achieved over the last six years is walking evidence that Patience is the greatest of the Christian virtues. Just now, the Republican base doesn't creep much above four percent itself.

    Neither side represents much of anything. Or rather, both sides represent a kind of baffled attempt to take credit post-facto for America's information-age expansion. There are sharp rhetorical differences between the parties. But since, as the Buzzcocks used to put it, "everybody's happy nowadays," the four major presidential candidates are similarly petrified about changing anything serious. With one exception?Bill Bradley and Al Gore really would like a National Health Service?there is almost nothing at stake in this presidential election. It is probably the least important presidential election since 1924. But the politics of torpor is never as boring as it seems. Bored voters can behave in unboring ways. Ours are about to throw the President's party out of the White House and the Speaker's party out of its congressional majority.

    Backing into the Oval

    many interesting things could happen to derail George W. Bush on his way to the White House. I'd love it, in fact, if all of them did. But anyone's if-you-put-a-gun-to-my-head prediction has to be that Bush will be our next president. He's going to enter the White House much as the Cincinnati Reds entered the World Series in 1990, when they were 20 games over .500 by mid-May, then had a losing record for the rest of the year. In fact, the Reds were sloppy and mediocre, arguably the worst team in the NL West from May through September. Bush, too, is sloppy and mediocre, arguably the worst candidate of the Big Four.

    Bush's problem is that he has made serious people doubt his capacity to be president. His apologists point to Ronald Reagan, and note that people thought he was stupid, too. But, in fact, Reagan followed the opposite trajectory. Reagan started out being cast as a buffoon, and gradually won over voters?not to mention a lot of centrist intellectuals who had been viscerally hostile to him at the get-go. Bush is traveling the other way: he's convinced people who had no reason to think ill of him that he's a dope. And it's bound to get worse. Bush will never, so long as his political career lasts, be as popular as he was a couple of months ago. On the other hand, congressmen have been complaining for the last five years that "you just can't keep voters' minds on politics." The better people know Bush, the less they like him. But he is the most reassuring candidate on first glance, and this time around, a first glance is all there's going to be.

    Everyone's expecting Bush, once in office, to rule like the last Southern governor who became president: Clinton. He stands a chance of ruling like the last one-term Southern governor to serve as president: Jimmy Carter. And, like the 1976 election that brought Carter to power, this might be one of those elections that it's better to lose. Imagine if Bush faced a severe cyclical downturn in the economy early in his term. Then you'd have an eight-year Clinton boom sandwiched between two Bush recessions?and a Republican Party that wouldn't see the inside of the White House for two decades. And should, say, John Paul Stevens or Ruth Bader Ginsburg retire from the Court early in his term, do you think the basically pro-choice Bush will relish the prospect of appointing another Scalia-type justice or two, who would give the Court a majority capable of overturning Roe v. Wade?

    Gore will win the Democratic nomination. He'll win because Brazile's invocation of the "four pillars" is not as stupid as it sounds. Although Gore will lose among white Democrats nationwide, he'll rack up 75, 80, 85 percent of the party-controlled black vote in Southern states. And if it gets close, the national party's superdelegates will tip the balance at the convention. But one's uncomfortable making this prediction, since Gore still gives off such a loser smell. What's amazing about him is that, in the last three months, as he's become more desperate?and "desperate" is the one adjective you hear applied to him most frequently nowadays?he's undergone a transformation from being one kind of a loser to being another. In September, he was the dorky, uninspiring guy next door, the kind of guy to whom girls are always saying, "Can we be just friends?" Today, he's the campaign-finance sleazeball (dressed in the drug-lawyer suits that Naomi Wolf has sold him on), lying brazenly about his primary opponent's record, rolling his eyes and sighing every time he's contradicted in public, and whining about "negative campaigning" every time someone asks him a factual question. He's gone from being Dick Lugar to being Dick Nixon?far and away the most devious presidential candidate of the past decade, which is saying something. Or as my colleague David Tell puts it, "Gore used to be the sweet boy with eyeglasses. Now he's like the unscrupulous pre-med who checks out every single copy of the library book that his classmates need to study for the final."

    Indicative of Gore's political klutziness is that he's taken on his dyspeptic humor despite having Chris Lehane, a hired attack dog, as his spokesman. Lehane has proved propagandistic to the point where he annoys even those who wish Gore well; he makes the George Stephanopoulos of 1992 sound like Diogenes. When preliminary Federal Election Commission Reports showed that Bill Bradley had raised twice as much money as Gore in the last quarter of 1999?the equivalent of handing Gore a sandwich board reading "Loser" on both sides?Lehane replied, "It's one more validation of the strength of the Clinton-Gore economy. You have more people than ever before able to contribute. Voters this January will have a chance to choose between Al Gore, who wants to continue our current economic approach, and Sen. Bradley, who wants to take us in a different direction." It would be easy to dismiss Lehane as a "rogue operative" if only Gore weren't saying exactly the same thing. The whole point of having a bad-ass "message guy," a la James Carville or Lee Atwater, is so that the candidate can act like Joe Sweetness-and-Light. If the candidate winds up mouthing the same meanness as his henchman, he winds up looking like Nixon surrounded by Haldemans and Ehrlichmans.

    The election analyst Stuart Rothenberg distinguishes between "core-constituency candidates" and "swing-voter candidates." Bush and Gore belong to the former group, John McCain and Bill Bradley to the latter. Bradley is doomed because he's too much like Gore. He may be a better fellow, less given to political chicanery than Gore?but there's no programmatic expression of that difference. Both are party-line senators with good links to the business classes, both pro-choice, both hard-left on unions, both race-obsessed. In retrospect, an old-style lunch pail Democrat with the courage to get into the race early?a David Bonior, say?could have snatched the nomination from Gore.

    McCain is the stronger of the two?and has a real chance of winning the Republican nomination. He may have a campaign platform that consists of nothing but his biography, he may try to manipulate voters with his "sincerity." But he has clearly, if you apply a proof's-in-the-puddin' criterion, run the best campaign thus far. Since Labor Day, he's the only candidate who's gained ground. He'll win in New Hampshire. If he wins in South Carolina, all bets are off, because a McCain victory will mean the failure of Pat Robertson's get-out-the-vote network, on which George Bush (although he understandably doesn't say so) is relying for his "firewall." If Christian activists can't provide the party establishment with a missile defense against nonestablishment candidates in South Carolina, Bush has no base anywhere.

    There's one beautiful irony about the McCain and Bradley candidacies, which are basically the same candidacy. The impossibility of campaign finance reform is the central issue around which these two swing-voter candidates have built their boomlets. And it's quite possible?not probable, but possible?that we'll have real campaign finance reform by election day. In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, which concerns the constitutionality of capping campaign contributions at $1000 (or whatever). If the Court rules that such caps violate the First Amendment, then the principle on which our legalistic soft-money/hard-money distinction rests disappears?and a lot of the worst campaign finance abuses along with it. In other happy developments, the Bush campaign is taking the wind out of McCain's sails by posting a searchable database of donors on the Internet. McCain will have to follow suit, and as soon as all the candidates are doing it, there should be no obstacle to passing a law to make it mandatory. No campaign caps and full disclosure is a desirable outcome?as well as the only campaign finance outcome compatible with the Constitution. It could also deprive Bradley and McCain of their raisons d'etre before the primary season is out.

    Out, House

    Republicans in Congress are mightily grateful that the presidential campaign is starting up. Their theory is that Clinton prospers by keeping the focus on Congress and his struggle with it. But that doesn't mean the presidential campaign will help Republicans, even if Bush wins. It could help, of course: U.S. News' Michael Barone points out that people aren't splitting their tickets like they used to. On the other hand, Dubya's crack about Republicans "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor" is an indication that he won't exactly stroll to the presidency arm in arm with congressional Republicans?who look more and more like losers, anyway.

    Republicans have a measly five-seat majority in the House, and Democrats for the past few months have been planning to take it back. It's not exaggerating to say they think they have it in the bag. Congressman Ben Cardin of Maryland has drawn up very detailed transition plans for January 2001, calling to mind the great quip Clinton-administration officials used to make about Newt Gingrich in the summer of 1994: "He's been corrupted by power he doesn't yet have."

    But Republicans have reached the same nadir of programmatic exhaustion that it took Democrats 40 years to attain. They're disheartened, disoriented and discredited. Democrats have little more to offer in the way of an agenda, but they're fired up by the prospect of having the House back, and at this stage you'd be a fool to bet even money on Republicans' holding on to it. Those Democrats dizzy with prospective success are to some extent merely doing the math. Of the 24 congressional seats coming open through retirements, 19 are held by Republicans and only five by Democrats. So all the Democrats have to do is split them, and you have Speaker Gephardt. There's a catch, though: In a prosperous country, the parties are terrified to move too far in any direction, so in the House at least, we may be facing the smallest pool of vulnerable seats in living memory.

    Granted, Republicans are still more vulnerable than Dems. In New Jersey alone, Bob Franks is running for Senate, leaving a seat in the 7th district that Republicans seem destined to lose. They should have been able to make up for it by taking back the New Jersey 12th from a Democratic nobody called Rush Holt. The problem is that the Whitman Republican Dick Zimmer, who held the seat until 1996, is running in the primary against Mike Pappas, the pro-lifer who held it until 1998. Since Pappas has been treated like dirt by the Republican congressional leadership (and overtly repudiated by Christie Whitman), he's unlikely to heed importunings to get out and clear the field for Zimmer. This promises a primary bitter enough to let Holt squeak through.

    There are other Republican seats that look to be in mortal peril. Impeachment manager Jim Rogan will see his district flooded with money from vengeful national Democrats. Republicans will be lucky to hold onto Rick Hill's at-large Montana seat, not to mention the increasingly enviro Washington 2nd, where Jack Metcalf is one of the few members of the Class of 1994 to honor a self-term-limiting pledge. In the South, Democrats are staging a mini-resurgence, and even some seats heretofore held by Republican big guns will be tough to hold. These include the seats of retiring Oklahoma Rep. Tom Coburn (a big Christian money-raiser), Kentucky's Ann Northup (an Appropriations Committee member who put herself on the line deriding feminists throughout the Lewinsky scandal) and seven-termer Richard Baker in the Louisiana 6th.

    Aside from Holt's New Jersey seat, Democrats look similarly vulnerable in only a couple of places. Party-switcher Michael Forbes' Long Island seat should come back to the Republicans, and state Sen. Mark Nielsen ought to be able to oust the moderate Democrat Jim Maloney from the Connecticut 5th, where Maloney only took 49 percent last time out. But given Republicans' dismal performance in their last by-election?the California 42nd, where the well-funded Elia Pirozzi was soundly drubbed last fall in what was supposed to be a tight race?chances are Republicans nationwide are weaker than they think.

    So what happens if the Dems do win? If they win by a lot they can make mammoth changes; if they win by just a couple of seats, they'll face the same hellish combination of impotence and accountability that Republicans have endured with their five-seat margin. But at the very least, they'll create an environment in which such Republican favorites as the Defense of Marriage Act and partial-birth-abortion bills will disappear from the radar screen, and various gun-control and antismoking bills will pop up to take their places. The Washington Post, with barely contained glee, argues that, since 40 percent of the Democratic caucus was elected since 1994, and many of them from suburban and rural districts, we can expect Democrats to be a more pro-business, centrist party.

    Even if the caucus is centrist, the leadership will be made up of the party left, those trained under the Old Bulls of the Rostenkowski era. Richard Gephardt will be speaker, David Bonior majority leader. Steny Hoyer, Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis will vie for the whip's post. (Although given the way Democratic caucus politics works, Hoyer will be forcefully advised to step aside, so the Dems can have at least one black or woman in a senior leadership post.) Democrats have already announced that they will reverse the Gingrich-era reforms that concentrated power in the speaker's office, returning a lot of bill-writing discretion to committee chairs. This is probably a good thing on the whole. (The system worked well for Republicans only after Gingrich left the speakership.) But it will also reintroduce the hydra-like style of vested-interest-linked fundraising that Congress practiced until 1994.

    The committee chairs will be firmly on the left. Charlie Rangel at Ways and Means. John Dingell at Commerce. John Conyers on the highly polarized Judiciary Committee (unless Barney Frank is allowed to leapfrog him). The Post can speak of centrist Democrats if it wants, but the Congressional leadership entering this time next year will be every bit as liberal as the one that left five years ago. The only possible difference is that it includes a lesser representation of bread-and-butter liberals and a greater one of limousine liberals.

    Poor Little Rich Country

    But on this electoral road, the liberal limousine is not a bad vehicle to be driving. Marx was wrong: In millennial America, voters tend to move rightward when they're poor and leftward when they're rich. Mark Shields has been saying recently that the issues in this election cycle favor liberals in a way they haven't in 25 years, and he's correct. The key lies in what Cooper Union historian Fred Siegel calls the "Politics of Post-Materialism." This far into a bonanza economy, many in suburban America, focused as they are on their booming stock portfolios, are responsive only to the problems that arise from their booming stock portfolios. Eugene, OR, Siegel notes for instance, has a no-growth policy that penalizes Intel if it creates too many jobs.

    In this post-material drift, all issues take on a new coloring. Guns for example. Guns remain a winning issue for Republicans, because gun-owners vote on the issue, whereas gun-control advocates tend not to. NRA membership is in fact soaring, and gun sales are even way up. But in a low-crime environment, the political advantage is shifting leftward. Where the middle class used to associate gun-violence primarily with the Natural Born Killers of the inner city, now they associate it with the trenchcoat-wearing weirdos who walk into suburban high schools and shoot their kids.

    There's an old saying that, in the national household, Republicans function as the "father party" and Democrats as the "mother party." Dad's problems are inflation, crime and Russia. Mom's problems are education and the environment. In a Father period, Tom Wolfe can quip that the average lower-middle-class guy thinks the Democrats are the party that takes his money and gives it to the kid who's mugging his wife on her way home from work. But we're clearly in a Mother period?so much so that Manhattan advocate Mark Green now gives speeches in which, riffing on Wolfe's line, he describes Republicans as "the party that's taking my money and giving it the party that's fouling my stream and sending my son's job to China." All the candidates are trying to corral Siegel's "post-material" vote. But whether they call their program "prosperity with a purpose" or "compassionate conservatism," to take just two of George Bush's formulations, it's a philosophy that has a lot more in common with liberalism than with conservatism.

    For an idea of how the politics of post-materialism works in practice, look at the ads Michigan Democrats are running against incumbent Republican Sen. Spence Abraham. Abraham is hardly the most right-wing guy in the Senate, but he has voted against most national health-type measures. So Dems are attacking him for his positions on HMOs (which he doesn't want to bankrupt) and prescription drug benefits (which he doesn't want to provide for free). Prosperity can pull the rug out from under even those politicians like Abraham who can take a bit of the credit for it. People are doing well themselves, less scared about crime, blithe about foreign aggression, so they begin, as progressives like to put it, "looking out for those who've been left behind."

    This is not as selfless as it sounds. Because a lot of those left behind are in the same families as those who've made it big. The first legislation of the those-who've-been-left-behind sort was President Clinton's 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which arose from the now-sacred feminist principle that it is unconscionable for two-income professional couples to have to pay for their own daycare. Similarly, today's health care legislation seeks to spare rich yuppies the indignity of having to shell out for Grandma's catastrophic illness at the very moment they've piled up enough money to buy a beach house. And why shouldn't I have a beach house? I earned it! I bought Amazon-dot-com when it was at nine-and-three-quarters!

    The Senator Cannot Hold

    Abraham's predicament is not atypical, and there are even some gloomy Republicans?particularly certain K Street lobbyists?more concerned about the Senate than about the House. The GOP has been getting some good news of late. Vermont "socialist" Bernie Sanders decided not to run against Jim Jeffords, the most liberal Republican in the Senate and a lackluster campaigner?whom Sanders would certainly have beaten. Pennsylvania's Democrats are way too divided to pose a serious challenge to Rick Santorum, who ought to be vulnerable.

    Given the right set of circumstances, Republicans could lose five of their seats and wind up in the minority parity. As it stands now, Republicans look very likely to lose three seats: (1) Florida, where the stick-in-the-mud Rep. Bill McCollum doesn't have the charisma to hang on to retiring Connie Mack's seat against the attractive moderate Democrat Bill Nelson. (2) Minnesota, where Rod Grams, always a bit far right for his state, has been mortally wounded by allegations that a local sheriff gave his dope-addled son special treatment when he was arrested in a stolen rent-a-car. If former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny gets the nomination, it will be a rout. (3) Delaware, where the 78-year-old warhorse Bill Roth looks as out of gas as the St. Bernards he walks around with him, or as flat as one of his toupees, or... But why waste perfectly good metaphors on Bill Roth? Suffice it to say he's ready to get picked off by sitting Gov. Bill Carper.

    On the other side of the ledger, there are three seats that Republicans would clearly win if the elections were held today: (1) In Nevada, John Ensign should finally break through and get a Senate seat, after losing in a squeaker in 1998; (2) George Allen, one of the most popular governors in Virginia's recent history, should put an end to the career of Chuck Robb (this is going to be the second most exciting race in the country). Finally, (3) Rudy should beat Hillary.

    The New York Senate race is hands-down the top race of the year. My colleagues on the speakers' circuit say they get asked about it more than they get asked about the presidential. Right now, Giuliani benefits from negative press coverage?to read The New York Times, upstate and suburban voters would think that Rudy hates New York City as much as they do. And Hillary continues to commit verbal hara-kiri every other news cycle. It's worth remembering, though, that if this election were run Base vs. Base?as most elections are in these torpid times?Hillary would win it. Hillary's people still feel they can win it, but only by keeping Hillary under wraps and running her as a symbol. This means appearances on Larry King and the softball circuit, but no press conferences and no Sunday morning talk shows. If Hillary can win running like Yeltsin, then we're all in trouble.

    But she can, at least in theory. The Republicans, in fact, could lose in all three of those races. What's more, there are two races that now look like tossups. To lose those would be to lose their majority. Abraham has no margin of error in Michigan. John Ashcroft in Missouri faces a big-money battle against sitting Gov. Mel Carnahan that's been marked by the kind of race-baiting that would make even Al Gore blush. When Carnahan accused Ashcroft of opposing the confirmation of a radical judge because he was black, Ashcroft dredged up the fact that Carnahan had acted in blackface for an audience of laughing politicos in the 1960s. This contest gets dirtier and dirtier as the weeks pass, and should be the third-most interesting race in the country.

    What's certain is that the presidential campaign is not where the action is this year. We're heading into the next Bush Era with the politics obtained during the last one?specifically, around the time Bush pere broke his no-new-taxes promise. Some candidates say they'll cut taxes, some don't?but the kind of government cuts that make tax cuts possible are nowhere on either party's horizon. Some candidates are pro-choice and some pro-life?but a presidential candidate who defends his party's pro-life "tenor," as Bush does, is likely to be pro-life only in the breach. Some candidates defend affirmative action, while others attack "quotas"?but anyone who wants to be seen as a compassionate "uniter" is going to leave us four years from now with an affirmative action that may or may not be mended, but definitely won't be ended.

    This is a presidential race that promises to be a battle between candidates who differ passionately?on the stuff that no one cares about any longer.