The Politics of Money
By WAYNE M. O'LEARY
Wither the Democrats? That, as Shakespeare might have said if he'd been
a campaign consultant, is the question. With 17 months to the next presidential
election -- formerly an eternity in politics -- the future already seems
preordained. Barring a smothering full-court press by the reticent scholar-athlete
Bill Bradley, Albert Gore Jr., the wooden man himself, would seem to have
ensured his party's nomination.
Gore has done surprisingly little to attain this state of grace beyond soaking
up most of the campaign funds available to Democratic presidential candidates
and leaving a dry money hole behind, thereby discouraging potential challengers.
The vice president has achieved this partly by being the designated successor
to President Clinton, whose impeachment crisis has made him, in the inverted
logic of partisanship, an unlikely hero to many Democratic activists previously
dissatisfied with his centrist policies and uneven performance. If you disliked
the Republican impeachment, this logic goes, show it by nominating Gore
and validating the president.
Gore also benefits from the over-extended but surging stock market, which
has become the symbol of our white-hot economy. Like a spent and punchy
boxer fighting on instinct, the market should go down, but keeps on answering
the bell. As long as it does, the vice president is the political beneficiary
by virtue of his prominence in the presiding administration.
Beyond these built-in advantages, Gore has been the recipient of an unprecedented
political favor that places him in an almost impregnable position. A series
of far-reaching structural changes to the primary system since the last
election cycle guarantee that party establishments and their pre-selected
candidates will henceforth enjoy a permanent leg up in the process. In the
vernacular of the political pros, the system has been "front-loaded."
While few in the public and the media were paying attention, almost all
of the country's major primary elections and nominating caucuses were rescheduled
to earlier in the presidential year and concentrated within a few weeks
of each other -- often on the very same day. Rather than stretching out
over five months as in past years, when important blocs of convention delegates
were often not selected until late springtime, the nominating process has
essentially been compressed into the two winter months of February and March,
with 32 of the 50 states voting within that time frame.
The key New York and California primaries, previously held in April and
June, respectively, will now take place together on March 7, along with
those of Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island,
and Vermont. These contests will be followed one week later by Super Tuesday
primaries in seven southern states, as well as Oregon, which used to vote
in May. The vital industrial Midwest will weigh in a week after that. For
all practical purposes, nominations will be settled by late March, nearly
five months before the party conventions -- or coronations.
The initial reaction to the change is apt to be a sigh of relief on the
part of attack-ad-weary voters contemplating a mercifully shorter primary
season. But by shortening the season, we have shortchanged ourselves and
circumscribed our political options -- or rather the various state legislatures
and party organizations have done that for us. A compressed campaign means
not only that candidates must have large national organizations in place
early on, but that electioneering must be carried out in numerous states
simultaneously, through massive television advertising. Large-scale buys
of expensive TV time for political commercials means, in turn, that candidates
without deep pockets or heavy contributors are eliminated from serious consideration.
In short, money rules.
Front-loading the process also means that insurgent candidacies have precious
little time to attract attention or build momentum. In the future, there
will be fewer Eugene McCarthys, Jesse Jacksons and Gary Harts vying for
president, and even fewer George McGoverns and Jimmy Carters actually winning
nominations. Only dark horses of independent means, such as multimillionaire
Steve Forbes, will be able to have any kind of an impact. There will always
be contenders like Pat Buchanan, who is running this time less to win than
to make a point, but serious outsiders will have to possess the ability
to bankroll themselves and spend lavishly to establish their credentials
quickly. In the new front-loaded system, media saturation is the name of
the game, and only high rollers need apply.
So, beginning in 2000, establishment candidates will, with rare exceptions,
dominate the electoral scene. This appears to set up a less-than-inspiring
contest between Republican George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative"
with the Fortune magazine endorsement, on the one hand, and Democrat
Al Gore, heir to the neo-liberal Clinton legacy, on the other. Both men
will have the money to potentially steamroller the opposition on their respective
sides of the aisle; each is expected to raise $50 million for the truncated
primary process -- three times what Bill Clinton spent in 1992.
Assuming this scenario, the representatives of the two major parties can
be expected to hew to the ideological center (or slightly to the right of
it) in the general election, offer no bold, new programs, promise incrementalism,
and substantially agree on any big issues that should accidentally be raised.
Each candidate will endorse globalization, the new technology, and market
solutions. With substantive agreement -- the environment is one possible
source of discord because of the global warming controversy -- the contest
will revolve around personalities and other ephemera.
Would you prefer dull and nice, or boring and nice? Neither Gore nor Bush
can match Bill Clinton in abstractly feeling the pain of those not blessed
by the status quo, but they will try. We will experience warm and fuzzy
ad nauseam. It all suggests a dreary prospect for committed political junkies.
There is, however, an alternative scenario. Nothing is apt to threaten the
Bush juggernaut on the Republican side. After 1992 and 1996, the GOP is
hungry for a winner, and though his accomplishments are limited to sharp
investing in the petroleum industry, financial management of the Texas Rangers
baseball team, and a facility in Spanish, Bush the Younger seems like an
attractive, new face; more importantly, he carries no political baggage,
and he has money to burn.
On the Democratic side, conversely, there is a genuine sleeper candidate,
and the outside chance still exists of a real contest for the nomination.
The stars will have to align perfectly for Bill Bradley, but at least two
factors could upset the Gore cash caravan. If the Kosovo peace process unravels,
or leads to an open-ended occupation, the vice president becomes vulnerable,
and if the stock market or the economy turn sour, he could end up playing
Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton's Calvin Coolidge.
Even without such dire developments, Bradley has an open field and the opportunity
to charge from behind. The former New Jersey senator is said to favor big
political objectives: fundamental campaign-finance reform, the elimination
of child poverty, the insuring of medically uninsured Americans, the rescuing
of those left behind by the new economy. This mindset contrasts sharply
with the Gore mentality, geared as it is to small ideas (an airline passengers'
bill of rights) and technological fixes (the V-chip). Whether or not Americans
are again ready for large thoughts and big objectives is an open question.
Given their self-absorption in the consumer culture, perhaps not. But if
they are, and if Bill Bradley's obvious integrity and idealism begin to
shine through what has become a grubby and corrupted electoral process,
the political money train could be derailed.
Wayne O'Leary is a freelance writer in Orono, Maine.
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