Back Where We Started From

The system works. After Super Tuesday, each party has as its putative nominee the fellow embraced by its elites, by its main money people and by its prominent lobbyists. And, of course, by its loyal voters, who followed the orders from above and spurned challengers who, in limited fashion, dared their parties to be better. John McCain and Bill Bradley provided more discomfort than expected. But the lesson is not startling: It's damn hard to beat the Man. Even when you're a reformer/war hero who inspires independents. Even when you're a reformer/sports hero defying the number-two to an impeached President.Now what? Eight months of boring Gore and gushy Bush? McCain, alas, has ruled out switching his crusade to the Reform Party channel (where the reception is awfully fuzzy these days) or campaigning as a PO-ed independent (as did his hero TR in 1912). Too bad. In the Bush-Gore face-off, there will be no strong voice for reform. Both men, in fact, represent the excesses of the institutionally corrupt system. Clinton/Gore in 1996 made pioneering use of the soft-money loophole that renders moot campaign finance regulations by permitting wealthy interests to buy as much influence and access as financially possible. Bush staved off the McCain threat partly because corporate lobbyists helped him raise a record-setting war chest. During his victory speech, Gore plagiarized McCain and donned the cape of a reform superhero. He promised to eschew soft money if Bush did likewise. But every time Gore speaks "from the heart" about reform, the GOPsters will wave pictures of him at the Buddhist temple. It will be a wash.Where can McCain take his reform message, and what happens to his following of independents? Already, GOP dreamers are yearning for a handshake that paves the way to a Bush/McCain ticket. But McCain, peeved by Bush's tactics (like accusing him of not caring about breast cancer, a disease that afflicts McCain's sister), has said no way. Prior to Super Tuesday, McCain sharpened his assault on Bush's sleazy politics; he decried the $2.5 million independent ad attack aimed at him by a Texas Bush crony. (The ads had a point: McCain has a lousy record on the environment, but Bush is just as bad.) With such campaign finance trickery, McCain shouted, "They can destroy and hijack every campaign."McCain also filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. The FEC is notorious for not resolving complaints until elections are over, but it would be interesting if McCain pursues his complaint. As for the independents he roused, most told exit pollsters they were not likely to vote for Bush anyway. Many probably will recede into I-do-not-vote land, awaiting another mad-as-hell candidate as attractive as McCain.The primaries accomplished a bit more than the expected dual coronations. McCain demonstrated that there is a constituency -- if not one in the GOP -- for a reform message, at least when it comes from a former POW. He also revived the old, pre-Reagan Republican opposition to supply-side tax cuts. He parted the curtain on the Bush $70 million extravaganza, and anyone paying attention could view the untidy backstage: Pat Robertson, tainted money, questions about Bush's intelligence and uncompassionate ads. By the way, the GOP campaign proved again that negative ads often succeed. Bush, though, was afforded the important opportunity to solidify his support among conservatives, many of whom once harbored suspicions about his supposedly moderate ways.On the Democratic side, Bradley, with his ineffective use of progressive notions, nudged Gore a centimeter or two to the left. Had Bradley sat out the race, Gore would still have trotted out the same incrementalist healthcare plan (every Democrat needs a healthcare plan) and the same Medicare drug benefits plan (every candidate wants to appeal to the elderly). But Bradley pressed him on gays in the military, gun control and.... Well, whatever Bradley did, Gore is going to mount the happy-days-are-here-again general election campaign he would have mounted had Bradley not taken a few pokes at him. Perhaps the most concrete result of the primaries was Bob Jones University's partial lifting of its interracial dating ban. Students may now court across racial lines -- with parental permission. Not such a bad return on the $200 million or so spent on the election so far.The primaries did preview some ugliness likely to come. As George Bush returns to peddling his all-smiles version of "compassionate conservatism" -- no matter the question, the answer will be "education" -- Pat Robertson and other religious-right activists will be toiling hard for him, perhaps under the radar. At the same time, watch for an explosion of so-called independent campaign activity on behalf of Bush, including attack ads, which are financed by secret donors. Gore, too, has started his postnomination lurch to the muddy middle. He will be droning about education, gun control and prescription drug benefits for the elderly, not universal healthcare. Free of Bradley, he is now free to engage in that postprimary tradition: Neglect your core constituents. After all, he already has bagged Jesse Jackson's endorsement. Shortly before Super Tuesday, Jackson cut a radio ad hailing Gore as a fighter for "economic justice." What did Jackson have in mind? Gore's support for the welfare legislation? His proposal to end affirmative action in government contracting? Or Gore's role in pressuring South Africa to stop practices (opposed by drug manufacturers) that permit its citizens with AIDS to have access to cheaper medication?It would be stupid to toss out prognostications on the rest of this election year -- even if the conventional predictions about the nominations essentially came true -- but the odds are that the national debate stirred by a Bush-Gore contest will be neither expansive nor inspiring. Each will try to out-education the other, while Bush babbles about trust and honor and hopes for a stock market dip and/or further hikes in oil prices, and Gore pledges to fight for "you" and hopes Bush's likable-fellow act doesn't catch on. The best of this campaign may be behind us.

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