The Triumph of Me-Too Politics

The big talk in the political-journalism world is that the election season that is ending signals the death of politics in America. This is how David Von Drehle and Dan Balz, two Washington Post reporters put it:

"Elections 2002 is shaping up...to be a ratification of 50-50 America, which is a nation of plurality presidents, gridlocked legislatures and declining voter participation. Strategists in both parties think and talk about the need to roll out big ideas and make bold new moves to break this deadlock -- but for now it's just talk. Instead of big and bold, the campaigns of 2002 have been marked by caution, vagueness, negativism, niche issues and sloganeering. Neither party has offered a clear or enticing way out. Tactics are almost certain to matter more in these races....than issues or philosophy."

Bold ideas have not been in vogue in U.S. politics for several years. The last time either party took a daring stance was in 1994, when Newt Gingrich and his Stepford Republicans unveiled a Contract with America that they described as a roadmap for undoing the so-called welfare state and reinvigorating what Gingrich called an "opportunity society." More discerning individuals saw it as a free-for-all for the worst of corporate America. Yet the Gingrichoids cruised into power and talked grandly of mounting a "revolution" in government and "reinventing" America.

The Newtites were done in by their own zeal and excess -- but not before they did damage by passing draconian cuts in social programs and by forcing (that is, encouraging) President Bill Clinton to second their era-of-big-government-is-over rhetoric. While these cutting-edge GOPers who embraced divisive ideology flamed out, Clinton survived seemingly by pushing small-scale initiatives (school uniforms for all!) and, more importantly, by continuing to practicing his me-too brand of politics. In doing so, he led the way to the politics of 50-50 America.

Clinton was a phagocyte. That's what biologists call a cell that surrounds and absorbs threatening foreign material. He took GOP issues and made them his own. During his first presidential campaign in 1992, he claimed two of the Republicans trademark gripes: welfare and crime. In the White House, he put deficit-reduction -- traditionally, a Republican priority -- over public investment. Then, after the 1994 election, he declared himself an aficionado of less-is-more government. All this pissed off the Republicans. How dare Clinton hijack their causes? And, worse, his policy proposals in these areas (as regressive as some were) did not go as far as those offered by Republicans. With his me-too-ism, Clinton tried to blur the distinction between his Democratic Party (or himself) and the Republicans. It worked, at least for him, though his party did lose control of Congress.

George W. Bush and his handlers learned well from Clinton. Bush's catchphrase -- "compassionate conservative" -- was designed to separate Bush from the Gingrichers and to swipe one of Democrats' most precious heirlooms. (It is a cliché of political analysts that the we-care-about-you Democrats are the "mommy party," and the we-protect-you Republicans the "daddy party.") As a candidate, Bush did not eschew the fundamentals of modern Republicanism -- tax cuts tilted toward the rich, budget hikes for the Pentagon -- but he made a bid to steal one of the Democrats' main issues: education. In office, he has emulated Clinton. The Democrats are for a patients' bill of rights, Bush is for one, too. The Democrats want a prescription drug benefit for seniors, Bush does also. The Dems announce plans for pension reform and corporate responsibility, Bush presents his own proposals.

Of course, in the not-so-fine print, there are significant differences between Bush's policies and those of the Democrats. But how many voters have the time and energy to sort them out? Republican candidates in this year's elections have followed Bush's example. Many proclaim their support for a prescription drug benefit -- previously a Democratic concern -- and cite legislation passed by the GOP-controlled House that deals (barely) with this matter. When campaigns are dominated more than ever by 60-second TV ads -- and when the national and local media pay little attention to the contests -- the fact that the Republican measure is severely limited can easily get lost or ignored. Every candidate these days is for a drug benefit and good health care and an education program and for protecting Social Security.

Social Security, until recently, was a signature issue for Republicans. They boldly advocated extensively reforming the popular federal program. The most common GOP proposal was for using Social Security funds to set up private accounts for individuals. Privatization -- that's what they used to call it. But as the market tanked this year, the Democrats fiercely attacked Republicans for wanting to privatize Social Security. Consequently, GOP strategists advised their candidates to drop the p-word, and Republican rhetoric on Social Security in many cases became indistinguishable from Democratic rhetoric. As the ideologues of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page huffed, "We keep reading that all across America this election year Republicans are running away from Social Security reform like scalded dogs. Well, politicians lacking courage isn't news." (In the don't-do-me-any favors department, six days before the election the WSJers cheered Elizabeth Dole, who was in a tough race for Senate in North Carolina, for continuing to support private accounts.)

Speaking of the lack of courage, the Democrats engaged in me-too-ism as well this year when they -- or many of them -- voted for the legislation authorizing Bush to launch a war against Iraq whenever he sees fit. And they engaged in a silent form of me-too-ism when they decried the budget deficit -- in an attempt to blame Bush for the economic downturn -- but refused to call for the suspension of Bush's millionaire-friendly tax cuts, a key cause of the deficit. (A number of Democrats did vote for these tax cuts.)

For the average voter, what are the signature issues for each party? The Democrats have run away from tax fairness. The Republicans have fled Social Security reform. This is not to suggest it doesn't matter which party wins. There are real contrasts on abortion, judicial appointments, environmental legislation, additional tax cuts, ballistic missile defense, and other important subjects. But in terms of self-definition, neither party has taken a bold stand that somehow cannot be imitated (even if falsely) by the other side.

Do the Democrats cry, "Health care for all?" No, they're still in shock over the mess Hillary Clinton made. Do the Republicans shout, "Small government for all?" No, Bush has to show his "compassionate" side by expanding education and prescription drug programs.

It's no surprise that party identification is decreasing. The parties are giving consumers less with which to identify. And they employ the same tactics: Raise a boatload of money and use it for ads. This year, the parties together will spend $1 billion by Election Day for a campaign that has fewer competitive races but more nasty ads than ever before. It was once SOP for a candidate, in the last week of a camapign, to stop airing negative ads that trash the opponent and, instead, air positive spots about himself. This year, the smackdown ads didn't disappear in the final week, another sign that candidates have even less to offer than before.

Pollsters, consultants and political reporters speak of the need for one party or the other to break out -- and, thus, bring an end to the 50-50 era (which for politicos in Washington is getting to be a drag). But as the Post reporters note, "Neither party has figured out how to win on the big issues."

Prior to Election Day, Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate predicted that turnout -- low as it usually is -- would be down. And he noted that registration for both parties was in decline, more so for the Democrats. "Part of the decline in Democratic Party registration can be attributed," Gans explained, "to the emergence of a two-party South in the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the continuing erosion in Democratic allegiance may also be traced to its lack of consistent message, its lack of continuing grass-roots organization and its inability to maintain a consistent voice as the party of the average person and of popular governance."

Senator Paul Wellstone, the populist liberal Democrat who tragically died in a plane crash 11 days before the election, once wrote, "Politics...is what we dare to imagine." But these days most of the imagination in politics is reserved for writing attack-ad copy that aims to discourage voters. Likewise, me-too politics doesn't engage. It's actually designed to obscure differences, and that de-motivates voters. Neither side is daring much. Neither is imagining much. Neither seems ready to break out. And with Wellstone gone, there is one less voice to counter the boring and alienating politics of cowardice and calculation.

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