National Journal, March 18, 2000
"I can't imagine a worse process, can you? Three more months of meaningless primaries! Eight months until the general election! It all drags on and on and costs so much, and what's the point? The candid candidates are out; the real winners aren't George W. Bush and Al Gore, but big money and party machines. I tremble for my country, darling. Do pass me one of those delightful little canapé things." The primary campaign was as perfect a contest as democracy has produced—which is to say, not too bad.
On the contrary, I said, passing the little canapé things. I can hardly imagine a better process.
"You're joking, right?"
Not at all. The primary campaign of 1999 and 2000 was as perfect a nominating contest as American democracy has yet produced—which is to say, not too bad.
"Surely you don't defend this crazy primary system? Why, it isn't a system at all."
It is senseless, of course. But so is politics and so is life, and so, above all, is the presidency, which requires its holder to negotiate four to eight years of surprises, reversals, frustrations, foul-ups, and dirty tricks. Thanks to being dragged through the nominating process, the greenhorn Texas governor and the wind-up Vice President became distinctly better at managing senselessness; former Sen. Bill Bradley showed that senselessness isn't his m?tier; current Sen. John McCain lost his cool under pressure and made mistakes. The crazy system is a magnifying glass that exposes flaws mercilessly. If New Hampshire didn't exist, we would have to invent it.
"But the race started too early and then finished before most states could even vote. The British finish their campaigns in six weeks."
Actually, this was the year when America's parties blundered their way toward a home-grown equivalent of the British system. In a parliamentary system, the parties choose leaders, often in sharp contests between the center and the edges. The leaders then spend months organizing their parties and sharpening their messages before finally facing the electorate. In practice, Tony Blair campaigned for years, not months, before finally winning the British election of 1997.
The process in America this year did something quite a lot like that. First the party insiders chose their favorites, and then the favorites faced stiff challenges, and now both nominees will build their platforms, organize their parties, and probe each other's weaknesses—just what British party leaders do between elections. By November, any voter who cares at all will know as much as any political system could reveal about George W. Bush and Al Gore.
"They're Tweedledee and Tweedledum, you know. You call this a choice?"
I do. The primary process offered every conceivable kind of candidate, plus Alan Keyes. You could have a tax cut, no tax cut, a flat tax, or no tax; you could have gays in the military, gays in the closet in the military, or gays driven out of the military with a sharp stick. If you wanted a candidate who pandered to racist whites, this was your lucky year; and if you wanted one who pandered to racist blacks, this was also your lucky year.
The two winners aren't alike, either. Far from it. They can't both be right about abortion, or school choice, or the budget surplus, or gays in the military, or—most important—humanitarian intervention in conflicts abroad. You want a Big Choice? Gore has called America's involvement in Kosovo a "moral test." "Our strategic interests are important," he said in 1999, "but so are our moral interests." Phooey, says Bush: "We should not send our troops to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide in nations outside our strategic interest." Bush has said point-blank, twice, that he would not send U.S. troops to avert a genocide in Rwanda; Gore's boss has effectively apologized to the Rwandans for not having intervened. If that's not a choice, I've never seen one.
"You know, though, it was all about money in the end. Bush didn't beat McCain; the money did."
Oh, money mattered, all right, as it always has and always will; but the pleasant surprise was that so many other things mattered more. Bradley attained financial parity with Gore early on and held it through the race, and in the crucial last quarter of 1999 he outraised and outspent Gore by a wide margin—all to no avail. And Steve Forbes' $40 million got him . . . where?
As for Bush, his $72 billion—sorry, million—gave him an enormous head start, but it also gave John McCain his opening. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee chairman, a full-time Washington insider since 1982, became the "outsider" in no small part because of the flood of big money into Bush's treasury. The irony was that Bush really is an outsider, a newcomer. But he lost that claim when he became a walking cash register and the favorite charity of shadowy Texas zillionaires. This time around, money often worked against itself.
According to a McCain adviser, by the way, McCain spent about $40 million, all told, which isn't peanuts. Would more money have put McCain over the top? After he called religious-conservative leaders "evil"? Maybe, but I doubt it.
"If money didn't count, why would they spend so much of it? Have you seen these spending totals?"
Yes, but the reason is no mystery: Communicating with voters is expensive. Michael J. Malbin, the executive director of George Washington University's Campaign Finance Policy Forum, added up the amounts spent by the most-recent winning Senate candidates in all the states that held presidential primaries this year as of March 14. Grand total: $145 million. Which is more than the winning presidential nominees spent. Conclusion: That is what politics costs. Deal with it.
"It's all such a turnoff. So few people even bother to vote."
Turnout in the Democratic primaries was the second lowest in 40 years, with only about 10 percent of the voting-age population going to the polls, according to Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. But then, the Democratic race became dull as soon as Al Gore beat Bill Bradley in New Hampshire. Republican-primary turnout, according to Gans, was 13.6 percent of the voting-age population, the highest level since Barry Goldwater electrified Republicans in 1964. Voters came out for, and against, John McCain.
Gans warns that the record turnout for (and against) McCain was not a sign of political health, because McCain tapped into voter disaffection. "It's precisely the opposite of euphoria," Gans told reporters. "It was unhappy people looking for hope." See? Low turnout is a sign of disaffection, whereas high turnout is a sign of disaffection.
Well, that's one way to look at it. Or you could say that McCain was an inspiring, hell-raising figure who made politics fun again. And he was! And he did!
"But so much of the campaign was negative."
Postmodern negativism ruled: anti-negativity negativism, otherwise known as pre-emptive whining. The idea is to be the first to go negative by attacking the other guy's negativism, preferably before he actually goes negative. Well, I say nyet to negativism about negativism! Give me the old-fashioned kind any day. Attack ads are useful, as long as they are approximately truthful. If Barry Goldwater tells jokes about dropping bombs into the Kremlin men's room, why shouldn't LBJ call him trigger happy? If George W. Bush goes out of his way to appear at rabidly anti-Catholic Bob Jones University, why shouldn't McCain nail him?
"Yes, but a lot of the ads this year were not 'approximately truthful.'"
Ah, there you have a point. If the primary race fell short, it was because a fair amount of lying went on, and the winners were the two candidates who did the most lying. Gore told a national television audience that Bradley "went 17 years in the United States Senate before he ever sponsored a campaign finance reform bill," when in fact, as Robert B. Reich notes in The New Republic, Bradley sponsored reform bills in six straight Congresses. Bush's brazen ad that falsely accused McCain of opposing breast-cancer research will live in infamy. The candidates who tried not to do this sort of thing, McCain and Bradley, got shellacked.
"Well, then. You see. That's bad."
Yes. That is bad. But don't forget the bigger picture. The voters had no trouble picking out the four best men in the race (though I retain a soft spot for Orrin Hatch), and each of the final four had the makings of a perfectly adequate President, or perhaps even quite a good President. Besides, a certain amount of ruthlessness, within reason, is not a bad thing in politics. Neither Bush nor Gore is pure, but neither of them is a Nixon, or even a Clinton. Remember the four basic rules of presidential politics:
Don't be too smart.
Don't be too honest.
Bush and Gore fill the order pretty well.