The Politics of Money


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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