Another fine report on the presidential campaign, Rick. Your Sunday Week in Review piece, "Candidates, Taking a Stand, Mix Policy and Persona," shrewdly observes the fact that the 2000 race is marked "by an extraordinary (if not mind-numbing) degree of substance. Candidates have issues more meaty 10- and 12-point plans, earlier in the season, than ever before in Presidential politics." In fact, nobody cares. I would even wager that if you sat the frontrunners -- Al Gore for the Democrats and George W. Bush for the Republicans -- and asked them to respond to a quiz on their position papers, they would have only a vague idea of what they are supposed to stand for. Your colleague at the Times, Frank Bruni, has a great piece on the front page today, about how every word that comes out of George W's mouth has been programmed by experts. Please give him my compliments ["For Bush, an Adjustable Speech Of Tested Themes and Phrases."]
What's going on here? The problem is there isn't a genuine political leader in the bunch. The process has become driven by processors, the campaign advisors who take the same polls and hire the same focus groups to find out what the average voter wants and does not want. Ask a candidate for the time of day, and he will build you a watch. The reason for this, Rick, is a misapprehension among the presidential advisors that the political spectrum is linear. Left, right and center. The linear spectrum is only useful among candidates for the legislative branch of the government. Voters who are choosing representatives for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives are not looking for direction. They are looking for a tendency toward more government or less government or the status quo. They also look for efficiency in representing their interests when interfacing with the federal bureaucracy (Senator Pothole) or speaking up for them in the Congress (Senator Claghorn).
The President of the United States is chosen for direction. This is not a linear function, but a multi-dimensional one. A compass is represented by 360 degrees worth of direction. The preferred direction changes every four years, so there is no real way to look at the previous election and decide how to run in the next election. A leader suddenly appears out of the common soup and winds up being chosen. The last genuine political leader we had who sensed the direction toward which the nation wished to go was Ronald Reagan. It may be the Reagan campaign had an issues book, but I don't remember one, and I don't think Reagan would have looked at it if his processors prepared one for him. After his election, his choice as Treasury Secretary, Donald Regan, asked for a collection of Reagan's campaign speeches, to know what Reagan expected him to do. He wanted lower marginal tax rates to expand the economy, without regard to the state of the budget deficit, and he wanted to challenge the Soviet Union instead of containing it. The national electorate had talked it over and liked it.
This was the way the Founding Fathers envisioned the political process. Presidential candidates only embraced broad themes, broad enough to represent the national interest. Nor did Presidents present legislative programs as we expect them to do today. There was guidance by the White House from the electoral mandate and the composition of the Congress. But there was always the understanding that the country was diverse in myriad ways, which is why there were two houses of Congress. The House, closest to the people, would compose legislative programs within the guidelines of the White House in ways that would, as much as possible, represent that great diversity. The Senate would represent slightly broader constituencies and a longer view of the national interest.
Almost by necessity, the candidate of the Reform Party has to be more like the old-fashioned presidential candidate. If he is going to be attractive enough to the broad electorate in order to win, he will have to persuade the electorate to rearrange itself outside the two major political parties. This normally is impossible, because the mere presence of a serious Reform candidate will cause the two major candidates to constantly amend their positions and directional guidance to keep the Reformer from getting a plurality. It may be a little less impossible this year, if the major party candidates get themselves so fixed into policy cement that accommodation to a fast-paced campaign isn't possible. In other words, the plethora of policy papers this time around actually may favor the third-party candidate.