All Else May Change, But Center Will Hold

Assuming that millennial prognostications of doom and judgment are false-and therefore that this newspaper will be published on schedule eight days after this column is being written-it seems at least one safe prediction can be made. Politics in America will proceed along the heavily rutted centrist path of the past decade.

Given the unappetizing alternatives on view around the world, American political continuity is often touted as uplifting by historians, editorialists and other sages. And considering the choices lately offered in this country, such as the Gingrich “revolution” of 1994, there obviously are worse possibilities than centrism. In all this sameness, however, there is also something stultifying and even slightly depressing-especially because both of the major parties are so often wrongheaded in agreement.

Despite the gory partisan struggles of the past decade, there are more than one or two issues where both parties essentially share the same stupid perspective. Details may differ, but the outlook is too similar on both sides to permit any intellectual progress. (Is it necessary to mention that the rise of the Reform Party, mentored by that great thinker Ross Perot, has added almost nothing to the national debate?)

The underlying reason why both parties agree to be stupid about any particular question is usually cowardice. A most appalling example, and one that has cost the nation many thousands of lives and many billions of dollars, is the endless, brutal, ineffectual and occasionally unconstitutional drug war. Depending on how one reckons its beginning, this national crusade against abusers of narcotics is now somewhere between three and eight decades in duration. Budget appropriations rise, along with new prisons, the number of black and Latino males incarcerated, the tonnage of cocaine and heroin seized, the acreage of marijuana sprayed with toxic chemicals, the volume of speeches and television commercials-and still the “enemy” multiplies implacably, year after year.

Where is the politician with the courage to demand an end to this madness? There are one or two on the back benches, but not nearly as many as there are who know but dare not whisper that the drug war is a disaster. Bipartisan idiocy on this subject is so unshakable that Al Gore sounds heroic merely for admitting that a cancer patient should be allowed to smoke a joint prescribed by a physician.

Drug abuse, like the alcohol abuse that afflicted at least one would-be President, is not a military problem. It is a medical problem. So is the nation’s enduring failure to provide insurance to a large percentage of working parents and their children. Over the past 10 years, even conservative Republicans have gradually realized they should give lip service to the ideal of universal coverage. They just don’t want to approve any measure that would achieve this desirable result-such as a single-payer, Canadian-style system.

Unfortunately, most of their moderate and liberal Democratic colleagues seem to agree. Politicians of both parties prefer to concoct their own dubious or dinky proposals, whose main feature is always to preserve the profits of insurance companies and so-called “health maintenance organizations.” Much of the blame for this particular syndrome lies with the Clinton Administration, which forfeited the opportunity of a generation and turned a political victory for universal coverage in 1992 into a defeat two years later. But that error is now being compounded by both Democratic Presidential candidates.

Aside from fearful conformity, the chief obstacle to clear thinking about important national issues is ideology. In both parties, there exists great hesitation to suggest greater regulation of markets; unfettered capital is widely presumed to produce the best economic outcomes, regardless of experience and evidence. The growth of unregulated worldwide financial markets, with their tendency toward speculation and criminal manipulation, seems likely to bring awful consequences in the not-too-distant future.

Close as the world economy has come to disaster in Mexico, Thailand, Brazil and Russia already, neither Democrats nor Republicans have taken heed of those clear warnings. They insist on behaving as if the present happy circumstances at home will last indefinitely, regardless of huge, potentially destabilizing fluctuations abroad. We may be heading toward the international equivalent of the savings and loan crisis, at a far higher cost to ourselves and other, much more vulnerable nations. But the Panglossian politicians in both parties seem remarkably unworried, content to leave our collective security in the manicured hands of Wall Street’s bonus babies.

The first campaign of the new century is certain to feature all the familiar personal nastiness, as Republicans and Democrats seek to distinguish themselves from one another while hovering carefully within the boundaries of mainstream consensus. That may be why, even before the first vote is cast, we are already bored.