Ralph Nader should not be President. But he has performed a service to the nation, by being the first considerable Presidential candidate to call for legalizing marijuana and for reconsidering all the drug laws. The government should not stand between doctors and patients who agree to use an herb with tolerable bad effects and proven good ones. The government should also not waste resources and authority hounding a bad habit which is less bad, by any measure, than alcoholism or smoking tobacco. Other illegal drugs have more pernicious effects than pot, and it would be imprudent to give blanket permission to indulge them. That is why our other drug policies require a sober second look. One of Bill Clinton’s first public lies, along with those concerning Gennifer Flowers and his draft record, was the preposterous claim that, though he had set joints to his lips, he never inhaled. It is fitting that the first post-Clinton election should include a candidate with Mr. Nader’s clarity on this issue.
Pat Buchanan should not be President either, but he has performed a like service by raising, alone among the prominent candidates, the issue of immigration reform. His speeches on the subject have been notably moderate, calling for a diminution, not a slammed door. It’s the open-house demagogues who are the extremists on this issue. Immigration to this country was never a high, steady flow. Wars in Europe, as well as distance and expense, produced ebbs and flows, which gave America the chance to assimilate and digest. But the world has grown smaller and cheaper. If we want to maintain the rhythm that historically served us well, we need to exercise prudence; the ocean won’t do it for us.
Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan perform the historic function of third parties, which is not to win elections, rarely even to act as spoilers, but to unroll the agenda a few turns more than the major parties would.
In the main event, we have in Vice President Gore and Hillary Clinton two representatives of an already powerful class, the commanding class. The members of the commanding class feel entitled, by credentials and facility (they would say, by training and intelligence), to rule the rest of us. Their ideology is dirigiste , their temperament arrogant and their morals spotty.
Al Gore the control freak shows himself in his foreign policy. He has served a President who entangled us in quixotic ventures around the world, helping the unhelpable and building nations where none ever existed. We have not paid much for these gestures yet, but some have been left as delayed stink bombs for the winner, and one-the Middle East-already is going off. When George W. Bush proposed ending our peacekeeping in the Balkans, Mr. Gore hammered him. He would have us stay until the Serb lies down with the Kosovar. There will be many other fields for missionary work-West Africa and the Congo are national gang fights; the Caucasus is ruled by bandits and mullahs. President Gore could be a busy man.
Mrs. Clinton donned the mask of command when she was fashioning her health-care plan in 1993. Her goal was expansive and her means were crabbed. She wanted to rig an industry, and do it behind closed doors. The scope would have defeated her, even if the means had not backfired. She could not force her projects on a Congress in which the Democrats controlled both houses; she didn’t try such a scheme a second time because the Democrats lost both houses, thanks in part to her first scheme. Victory, the glare of publicity and the requirements of her next election-Hillary for President in 2004-would tempt her to try something grandiose again. The habits of the Senate, and the jealousy of her colleagues, would hand her another humiliation.
Mr. Gore and Mrs. Clinton have temperaments to match their world views. Al Gore, raised in a Washington hotel and educated in a D.C. prep school, says he will “fight for us,” with the condescension of the elite lifer who is more remote from ordinary people than a squire from his tenants. Hillary Clinton has toured upstate New York like a combination of Lady Bountiful and a field worker with a grant, a translator and an assignment from the Ford Foundation to study the indigenes. The party of Al Smith and beer has come a long way.
The commanding class does not appreciate difficulty. When Mrs. Clinton is confronted with it, she suspects conspiracy (as in “vast right-wing …”) or disobedience. In the latter case, she conspires to do the disobedient in (cf. the Travel Office). When Mr. Gore feels the pinch of circumstance, he lies. Venially, to be sure: Who cares who invented the Internet, or whether some monks slipped him a wad of cash? But the pattern of denying controlling truthful authority is a troubling one.
Their final defense is character-they behave as they do because they are who they are. So Harold Bloom defends Falstaff. But Mr. Gore and Mrs. Clinton are not happy with their characters. Look how she kneads the poor stuff of herself, from face-lifts to baseball caps. Look how he wears his rigidity, like a body wax. Commanding is their fate, not their pleasure.
None of this is a positive argument for their opponents. For Rick Lazio, little can be said. He is a callow man who has run a terrible campaign. Governor George W. Bush believes fewer bad things than Al Gore does, and more good ones; he has picked good advisers; and he may be a real person, though he has a streak of bullying that is worrisome. When the election took a bad turn, the left began floating the notion that he was stupid, but look who said it: Michael Kinsley, who dithered away a chance to edit The New Yorker so that he could stay in Seattle editing an online magazine nobody reads; Todd Gitlin, who believes in socialism. These guys are smart? George W. Bush is no pinup, just the best man running.
Whoever wins, Mrs. Clinton’s husband will go back to private life. There will be books, and interviews and visits to the floor of the Senate-those two-handed handshakes, those little smiles. But we won’t have to look if we don’t want to. When you take a tour of the White House, you can think of Zachary Taylor, or Gerald Ford, or the long role of the unremarkable and the honorable. That is not an ideal state, but it will be an improvement.