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The Boston Phoenix Game, Set, Match

The big news of 1999 is that the 2000 presidential race has already been decided. The loser: you.

By Dan Kennedy

JANUARY 3, 2000:  The public has yet to cast a single vote. The media have only begun to blather. Yet the presidential race -- the story that will dominate airwaves, cable lines, Internet hook-ups, and the press right up through Tuesday, November 7, 2000 -- is over.

Sure, Vice President Al Gore, Texas governor George W. Bush, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, and Arizona senator John McCain are all in the running. And at least according to New Hampshire polls, all four men have a legitimate shot at the big prize.

But the real action took place in 1999, during the pre-primary season, when millions of dollars in campaign contributions -- made all the more vital because of an absurdly foreshortened primary schedule -- served to eliminate all but the safest, most mainstream candidates from the competition.

Don't feel guilty about missing out. After all, you weren't invited.

The winnowing of the 2000 presidential field was one of the biggest stories of 1999, and one that went entirely uncovered except in the usual context-free stories from the campaign trail about who's ahead in fundraising, who's hired the hottest consultant, and who served the most kick-ass barbecue at the Iowa straw poll.

On the Republican side, experienced politicians such as former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole, former vice-president Dan Quayle, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, and Ohio congressman John Kasich all pulled out for lack of money, and America First nostalgist Pat Buchanan defected to the increasingly surreal Reform Party.

It may be nice to see anti-choice extremists such as Quayle and Buchanan either on the sidelines or marginalized, but consider what happened on the Democratic side. Progressives such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, and House minority leader Dick Gephardt, all leading advocates for labor and the poor, chose not to get in at all. Individually, each had good reasons to stay out: Jackson has formed a close alliance with the Clinton-Gore administration; Wellstone has a bad back that limits his ability to travel; Gephardt hopes to become House Speaker. Collectively, though, it's difficult to see how a genuine left-liberal candidate could raise the kind of money from corporate interests that's necessary to compete against the pro-business front-runners. (One Democrat who should be kicking himself for staying out is Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who almost certainly would have proved to be a more dynamic challenger to Gore than Bradley. But Kerry, like Gore and Bradley, is a moderate New Democrat who would have added little in the way of ideological spice.)

It's not that there aren't significant differences among Gore, Bradley, Bush, and McCain. The Democrats are slightly to the left of center, and the Republicans are slightly to the right. Gore and Bradley genuinely seem to want to do something significant about health care, whereas Bush and McCain are taking a more cautious approach. The Republicans are pushing such GOP nostrums as big tax cuts (Bush) and some version of a flat tax (McCain); the Democrats concede they can't rule out a tax increase should economic conditions change. And, of course, McCain and Bradley are way out in front of Bush and Gore on the unsexy but vital issue of campaign-finance reform.

But neither Gore nor Bush, still the odds-on favorites to win the primaries, is being challenged by his own party on ideological grounds. Bradley's main appeal is that he is not Gore -- code for being not Clinton, which is why Bradley's boring, aloof persona has played well so far. McCain has risen on the strength of his war record, his outspokenness, and the sheer ease with which he seduces reporters.

Moreover, there are no real differences between the Democrats and the Republicans on the sort of broad cultural and economic issues on which presidential elections are decided. All four men support so-called free trade, exposed as a divisive issue in the furious protests (and even more-furious official response) at the recent World Trade Organization conference in Seattle. Jackson, Wellstone, Gephardt, and, God help us, Buchanan are all staunch opponents of existing free-trade agreements, and would have given voice to the environmental and labor concerns raised in Seattle. Also not up for discussion: the unhealthy gap between rich and poor, which grew for much of the '90s, and the fact that 20 percent of Americans live in poverty.

Even emotional social issues such as abortion rights and gay and lesbian rights have been muted, if not taken off the table entirely. Gore and Bradley hold reasonably enlightened views on both issues, and neither Bush nor McCain, each nominally anti-choice, has signaled that he will threaten a woman's right to choose. McCain also met with the Log Cabin Club, a gay Republican organization, and has gone so far as to predict that one day we'll have a gay president. Bush, as is his wont, is trying to play both sides of the street, claiming he won't discriminate while reportedly telling a religious-right group that he won't hire any out gay men or lesbians. Such pandering is disturbing, but his record on gay rights reveals him to be a moderate conservative, not a hatemonger.

Of course, it's refreshing not to hear hateful rhetoric from any of the leading presidential candidates. Still, it's interesting, and troubling, that the millions of religious conservatives who were so influential just a few years ago have now been marginalized by big money just as thoroughly as progressives have.

"It's all about money," says leftist author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who tried -- unsuccessfully -- to talk Texas populist Jim Hightower into running. "This is something McCain at least tries to understand. This is something the public is not invited to participate in. It's a rich man's game. It's like the Nobel Prize for politically involved celebrities."

The bottom line is that, a month before the February 1 New Hampshire primary, the presidential race has already been decided. The winner will be a cautious, pro-business centrist with moderate views on social issues.

The only question is which one.

As with many unfortunate developments in politics, the current state of affairs grew out of well-intended reforms. Through 1968, presidential candidates were chosen principally by party bosses. For instance, the Democrats' 1968 nominee, Hubert Humphrey, had not entered a single primary that year, but was handed the nomination at the national convention. Humphrey lost that fall to Richard Nixon.

Following that tumultuous election, the Democrats assigned then-senator George McGovern to come up with a more democratic system. The result: a far greater emphasis on primaries, which put the choice in the hands of voters, or at least those voters motivated to turn out. That was followed by the post-Watergate reforms of 1974, with a $1000 limit placed on donations ($5000 from political-action committees), putting enormous pressure on candidates to raise small amounts of money from large numbers of people.

The Republicans have always chosen their candidates by primogeniture, so the reforms had only a limited impact on that party. For the Democrats, though, the changes meant that dark-horse candidates with little organized party support could campaign their butts off in Iowa and New Hampshire for two years and use surprise victories (or at least unexpectedly strong finishes) to roll to victory. McGovern himself did that in 1972, only to get squashed by Nixon that fall. Jimmy Carter went all the way in 1976. And in 1984, Gary Hart won in New Hampshire and might well have won the nomination if he'd had an answer when the establishment candidate, Walter Mondale, turned to him at a debate and asked, "Where's the beef?"

During the 1990s, though, and especially since 1996, when the Clinton re-election campaign found new ways to exploit unregulated "soft" money (contributions made to political parties rather than to individual candidates), the window of opportunity for dark horses has closed. The primary season itself has been shortened, as states that used to hold late primaries have moved them up to avoid being cut out of the action. In 1976, each party had chosen just 19 percent of its delegates by the sixth week of the primary season. In 1996, the parties had chosen more than 70 percent by the sixth week. California, which used to hold its primary in June, will this year hold it March 7, just five weeks after New Hampshire. This short schedule means that, to have a realistic chance of winning, a candidate must gather an enormous hoard of money ahead of time. By contrast, McGovern and Carter had enough time after their low-budget New Hampshire breakthroughs to raise money for the next round of primaries.

Looked at through this lens, 2000's Big Four may actually be a Big Three and a Half. According to their most recent campaign-finance reports, Gore, with $24.9 million in contributions, and Bradley, with $19.3 million, should be able to compete evenly -- especially since Gore has already blown much of his wad (see "Going for Broke," News and Features, December 17). But Bush, who decided to spurn matching funds so that he could raise as much money as he's able, has an overwhelming $57.7 million, whereas McCain has just $9.4 million. In addition to his financial woes, McCain can't even get on the ballot in New York, shut out by that state's arcane access rules. McCain's best hope is that negative ads by rich boy Steve Forbes -- whose low standing in the polls is proof that money, fortunately, isn't everything -- will do so much damage to the glass-jawed Bush that the Bush campaign will fall apart. Short of that, it's hard to see how McCain could win.

In other words, if nominations were decided by party officials through 1968, and by primary voters from 1972 through 1992, 1996 marked the point at which nominations began to be decided by well-heeled contributors. This development has a devastating effect on voter interest. Northeastern University political-science professor William Mayer, who documents the evolution of the primary system in a new book he edited, In Pursuit of the White House 2000 (Chatham House), predicts interest will plummet as soon as it's clear who'll win the nominations -- and that will happen very soon indeed.

"It'll be high in Iowa and New Hampshire, and till the races are settled," Mayer says. "Then it will just drop off the table."

Pity Tom Patterson. The acting director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Patterson is trying to come up with ways of boosting public interest in the campaign, in part through more-substantive media coverage. Yet weekly tracking polls conducted by the Vanishing Voter Project -- which Patterson co-directs with Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office -- show that only about 20 percent of the public is interested in the 2000 campaign. Because of the whirlwind primary schedule, Patterson fears it will be all over before voters start to tune in.

"The likely impact of the front-loading and the compacting, unfortunately, is that we're going to breeze through this nomination process with the public never really getting up to speed," Patterson says.

With candidates who hold non-mainstream views either out of the race or -- like Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes -- out of the running, the media have little to cover except for trivia and scandal, no matter how minor. Consider the media themes to date. Bush may have snorted coke 25 years ago and could be dumber than a rock (or a Quayle). Gore is wooden and would try to take credit for the sunrise if he thought he could get away with it. McCain is a war hero of dubious sanity. Bradley sure was a hell of a basketball player. The removal of real differences on issues leaves behind a debased politics, and that, in turn, leads to debased political reportage. As Columbia University journalism professor (and former Boston Globe editor) Michael Janeway put it in the December 20 American Prospect: "Cheapened politics and a cheapened press are mutually reinforcing. A good deal of the debasement of news coverage -- obsession with the scandalous and the personal -- is nature filling a vacuum. The slide from a politics of substantive agenda and action into a politics of spin, image, and money required to shape it is the source of the vacuum."

So what is to be done? Three decades ago, anti-war activists Curtis Gans and Allard Lowenstein were hoping to force Lyndon Johnson out of the White House. They did it through the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, then a senator from Minnesota. McCarthy's surprisingly strong second-place finish in New Hampshire pushed Johnson to announce he would not seek re-election. Gans, who is now director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says the lessons of 1968 apply today.

The first thing Gans would do to fix things is re-elongate the primary season and thus give dark-horse candidacies a chance to catch fire once again. After Iowa and New Hampshire, Gans would allow no more than three primaries a week, to be chosen by lottery. He's also intrigued by a Republican idea to have an "inverted pyramid," whereby states with the fewest electoral votes hold the earliest primaries, thus encouraging grassroots participation, to be followed week by week by increasingly more-populous states. Such steps, Gans says, would diminish the "television and tarmac" spectacle that now dominates the post-New Hampshire primaries.

The second step Gans proposes is considerably more controversial, but drawn directly from his experience with McCarthy. And that is to do away with the $1000 limit on individual campaign contributions. McCarthy was able to enter New Hampshire at the last minute and shock Johnson because a few well-heeled anti-war Democrats were willing to fund him, Gans says. Today, McCarthy would have to spend the better part of a year shaking down many thousands of contributors in order to have a chance. Northeastern's William Mayer agrees, saying, "When it comes to the presidency, the problem is not too much money but too little money, or too little for some candidates."

The argument is intriguing, but probably dangerous given what wealthy political activists would likely do if freed from any restraints. No doubt the $1000 limit should be raised to reflect 25 years of inflation. But the best way to free candidates from the burden of endless fundraising is through a more comprehensive public-funding system, not through unregulated donations that leave candidates even more beholden to special interests than they are now. That's what makes McCain and Bradley's alliance over campaign-finance reform so interesting, even though their views are otherwise strictly mainstream.

If political reform is needed, so, too, is media reform. Michael Janeway's argument that the state of the press reflects the state of politics is persuasive, but the press is far from being a passive player. Look at the pop quiz administered to Bush by Andy Hiller, of Boston's WHDH-TV (Channel 7). For better or worse, that has turned out to be a defining moment. Look at the role of a fawning press in the rise of McCain. Tom Patterson suggests that if the media had identified Elizabeth Dole rather than McCain as Bush's most formidable challenger, it might well have been McCain who dropped out.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, the author of the recent What Are Journalists For? (Yale), says that what's missing is a lack of willingness on the part of news executives to reflect on their role, and to decide in advance what they hope to accomplish in their campaign coverage. This unwillingness to set goals, Rosen says, is based on a widely believed institutional fallacy that the media don't shape the news, they merely cover it -- the idea being that "news is a naturally occurring event, which is not the way it works." If journalists would adopt a "better public dialogue" as an explicit goal, then they could help foster a discussion of issues rather then merely being passive receptors of whatever issues candidates choose to bring up.

"It's not that the media haven't covered the issues," Rosen says. "It's that they haven't cared to create the dialogue that would draw in all the candidates in the race."

And now, we take a break from cynicism and despair to bring you this message: Al Gore, George Bush, Bill Bradley, and John McCain are all substantive, accomplished people.

Whoever takes the oath of office in January 2001 will bring with him a proven political record, a pragmatic approach to problem-solving, and a reputation for integrity. (Granted, Gore and McCain have had brushes with fundraising scandals, but Gore's was inconsequential and McCain says he learned some important lessons.) Any one of them would stand in sharp contrast to the scandal and sleaze of the Clinton years.

But we will have chosen this president through a system that confers credibility on those who can raise the most money and who have thus proven their acceptability to corporate interests. It's a system that rewards caution, punishes ideology, and narrows the range of acceptable discourse.

It's also a system that narrowed the field to four safe candidates before you even had a chance to vote.

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