Howard Dean is for fiscally responsibile, business-friendly governance, except when he's for a massive campaign of re-regulation. George W. Bush is for small government and a humble foreign policy, except when he's for big Medicare bills and preemptive wars. John Kerry is for some similar collection of incompatible policies, I'm sure—I just don't know what they are, because I can't be bothered to investigate the platform of John Kerry. Why should I, unless I'm morbidly curious as to what promises he'll be breaking in the unlikely event that he's elected?
It is well-known that the American political system requires a successful presidential candidate to adopt three very different personas. During the primaries he must run to the left or right, depending on his party, in order to attract the support of the Democratic or Republican faithful. During the general election he must run to the center, in order to attract the support of people who find the Democratic and Republican faithful kind of creepy. And, once elected, he must run past the center, and adopt his opponent's platform.
Which is just as well, because the most important events of each presidency probably won't come up in the campaign anyway. In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated a mythical "missile gap"; they did not debate whether the winner would start sending troops to southeast Asia. That decision, at least, was one that the president had a hand in. What might be the most far-reaching domestic transformation to emerge from the Kennedy administration was launched from several rungs below the Oval Office, when Byron Hanke, the Federal Housing Administration's chief of land planning, convinced his agency to start insuring common-interest developments, and to issue model covenants and bylaws that such contractual alternatives to local governments could use. That mode of living subsequently swept the country, with the number of such communities jumping from around 500 to over 200,000 in the following four decades. This issue, needless to say, was never mentioned in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, which turned instead on who looked prettier on TV.
Nor, in 1968, did Nixon or Hubert Humphrey or George Wallace go before the American people and say, "I think it would be a really good idea to develop a distributed communications system capable of withstanding a nuclear war." But a year later, with Nixon in office but without any leadership or oversight from the new president, some Pentagon-funded academics in California built the first nodes in what would eventually become the medium you are using to read this article right now.
And then there are the changes that emerge not just from behind the back of the president, but from behind the back of the government altogether. 1969 gave birth not just to the Internet but to the Stonewall rebellion, which marked the start of the modern gay liberation movement. Over the next decade, a number of families would turn back to the formerly disappearing practice of educating their children at home, starting a homeschooling revolution that now encompasses around a million kids and has influenced the concurrent charter-school boom. Most social and technological change first appears far from Washington, D.C., which takes years to catch on to what's happening and rarely understands what it sees even then.
The most interesting question about the Dean administration, the second Bush administration, or whatever administration takes office 13 months from now is not which set of promises it will settle on before the election, nor whether it will enact them once in power. It's what minor decisions from odd corners of the regime will create avalanches of change; and how it will deal with those sudden changes that tumble down from places even further from the center of power. Don't expect to hear about those during the debates.