The show has come to town-that unexpectedly dramatic, often exciting and occasionally unedifying spectacle known as campaign 2000. Over the next few days, the four leading Presidential candidates will try to seem like neighbors and kindred spirits as the March 7 primary approaches. By the time they move on, the four may be reduced to three, and one of the remaining three may be on the verge of collapse. For pure political drama, this is hard to beat.
On the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley have engaged each other in a campaign that often has defied pundits’ expectations. The Democrats’ disagreements on issues such as health care have demonstrated that the complaint about today’s supposedly vacuous campaigns is a little overwrought. Indeed, it’s conceivable that only serious policy analysts could follow the candidates as they compared health plans or talked about any number of domestic policy differences. There seems little question that Mr. Bradley has helped elevate this campaign through the sheer force of his intelligence, integrity and sense of self; and yet, if he does not overtake Mr. Gore in New York and elsewhere on March 7, he will have fought his last battle this year.
The Republican contest has been less a clash over policy proposals and more a great human drama. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas entered the fray as the chosen candidate of his party’s establishment, an untested but charismatic man with a well-known brand name. One by one, his challengers succumbed until, among the first rank of also-rans, only Senator John McCain of Arizona was left. And what chance did he have? His issues were anathema to the party’s top leaders, big contributors and in-house intellectuals. And yet, amazingly, Mr. McCain comes to New York with a good chance to pull off one of the most remarkable victories in recent political history. Even if Mr. McCain falls short in New York, where the Republican establishment tried to keep him off the ballot, he will live to fight again, perhaps all the way to the spring and-who knows?-to the Republican National Convention in August. If you’re a political junkie, it doesn’t get much better than the past six months.
Of the four leading candidates, three have a great deal to recommend themselves. Messrs. Gore, Bradley and McCain have demonstrated leadership abilities that allow us to see each one as a potential tenant in the world’s most famous public housing project, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Mr. Bush, however, has been unable to shake the impression that he is little more than the undistinguished son of a middling, if pleasant, family, a man who is not quite sure why he wants to be President. His claim to importance is that he has been elected twice as governor of the second most populous state in the Union. That is undeniable. But why should the nation at large feel obliged to validate the mistakes made by a few million Texans?
In contrast to Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore, another son of his party’s establishment, has put his early privileges to good use. He chose his father’s field of public service at a young age-indeed, thought himself qualified to run for President in 1988 at age 39!-and has worked diligently, methodically and often ruthlessly at it ever since.
Though he has been running to the left during the current Presidential primary, Mr. Gore made his reputation as a prototypical New Democrat, a tough-minded centrist who sought, successfully, to distance the party from the failures of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Even in the current campaign, as he is being challenged on his left, the Vice President’s instinctive caution about big government is clear-Mr. Bradley’s complaint about Mr. Gore’s health plan is that it is not nearly ambitious enough.
If character were the only issue in Presidential politics, Mr. Bradley surely would merit more consideration than he seems to be receiving, even from groups that ought to be more sympathetic. As a U.S. Senator, he was not so much a Beltway insider and deal maker as a citizen-legislator who kept his distance and thus his independence and his integrity. As a candidate for the nation’s highest office, he is leading the Democrats away from the jostle of carefully worded promises and toward the broad plains of big ideas. Mr. Bradley suffers from earnestness in a cynical time, but he admirably declines to hide his malady behind a screen of poll-tested emptiness.
Mr. McCain, too, has challenged convention by speaking truth and sticking to his opinions. Like Mr. Bradley, he is an attractive candidate to replace the easy cynicism of the Bill Clinton era. His biography speaks to his values and patriotism; his denunciations of the Republican Party’s ties to the forces of exclusion mark him as a man of courage and principle. And his fight against Mr. Bush has captured the imagination of an electorate thought to be apathetic and lazy. No small achievement.
Mr. Bush stands out in this field, but in the wrong way. His personal narrative does nothing to inspire confidence in his judgment. His campaign has been one of the great disasters in modern American political history. As his appearance at Bob Jones University demonstrates, he is unbelievably tone-deaf, if not downright callous. Branded early on as a frat boy who did little to build on his advantages in life, Mr. Bush has been unable to persuade voters that he has become a man of substance, a leader.
New Yorkers would do well to keep in mind that Mr. Bush’s supporters here tried desperately to keep Mr. McCain off the ballot, denying Republican voters a choice.
We’re beginning to understand why.