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Looking over the early field


WASHINGTON -- Although President Clinton has made a slum of the presidency, many people are maneuvering for the opportunity to gentrify it. The 2000 campaign begins with Vice President Al Gore likely to be the Democrats' choice to . . . what? "Continue the Clinton tradition"?

That slogan needs tweaking. Nevertheless, since 1945, every serving vice president who has wanted his party's nomination (Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George Bush) has won it. (The exception, Alben Barkley, was 75 when President Truman decided not to seek re-election in 1952.) The rallying of Democrats' around Mr. Clinton helps Mr. Gore. But there are ominous polls, such as one in Michigan showing Texas Gov. George W. Bush beating Mr. Gore, 52-34 percent.

November's elections brought House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt tantalizingly closer to becoming speaker, which may keep him out of the 2000 contest. Voters for whom the question will be "Which candidate least resembles Mr. Clinton?" are depressed because Sen. Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat, has decided not to run. He thereby demonstrated traits -- contentment, less-than-obsessive ambition -- that, together with risk-taking ideas on education and entitlement reform, make him attractive. Which leaves Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

Mr. Wellstone believes the time is ripe for old-time liberalism. He will have trouble testing that theory because improvers like him have "reformed" campaign finance laws, making it impossible for a repeat of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 insurgency, which was launched by a few large contributions.

Boring Bradley

In basketball, Mr. Bradley excelled by knowing how to move without the ball. He will need the ball -- a clear reason for running -- because his rhetoric does not cause legions to exclaim, "Let's march!" Another believer in low limits on campaign giving, Mr. Bradley may be winnowed out of the process by such laws.

Mr. Kerry has by marriage more than enough money, so he can wait in the weeds. However, every passing day Mr. Gore gains by the presumption of inevitability. So does Governor Bush. He has a bigger lead for the Republican nomination than Ronald Reagan had in 1979, or Mr. Bush's father had in 1987.

Mr. Bush has little to fear from the financial or ideological power of Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire (who by running might drain New Hampshire's primary of importance, to the republic's betterment). Mr. Smith began his race this week, as Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft ended his. Steve Forbes has formidable financial and ideological resources. Running in 1996 against Mr. Dole he demonstrated ruthlessness, and in the last two years he has demonstrated stamina and long-headedness. But voters rarely regard the presidency as an entry-level political job.

McCain's record

Arizona Sen. John McCain had a splendid 1998, as such things are reckoned in Washington. That is, he pleased Washington, and the New York Times. His task in 1999 is to recuperate from that.

Mr. McCain won applause by sponsoring two awful bills. One would have eviscerated the First Amendment (speech rationing in the name of "campaign finance reform"). The tobacco bill was to "compensate" government (which actually makes money from smoking) by punishing a legal industry for selling legal products to people supposedly not responsible for the foolish decisions Joe Camel made them make.

Still, the vigor of Mr. McCain's mistakes, as well as his biography (Navy aviator, POW hero) mark him as an authentic among synthetics. Only Elizabeth Dole has his potential allure for Republicans craving the unconventional.

Her ideology, which is a work in progress, would be conventional conservatism, and her campaigning would be blessedly conventional by being what her husband's was not (focused, disciplined). However, her femininity makes her exotic to nervous Republicans, who nowadays are all Freudians, obsessively asking, "What does woman want?"

The political class' answer (suggests an unenthralled Danielle Crittenden in her new book "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman") is that women are so emotional and self-absorbed that not only is "the personal political," but "only the personal is political." After what Ms. Crittenden calls "the great gush" of the 1996 campaign, it seems that both parties think of women the way opponents of female suffrage did -- as unable to transcend domestic concerns in electing national political officers.

Hence Washington's solicitousness about "soccer moms," which reflected a demeaning view of women as fatigued and simple creatures unable to relate to the national government other than as it relates to their carpooling.

Perhaps only a female candidate can slow the feminization of politics, the cardinal tenet of which is: That government is best which empathizes most. Would Mrs. Dole's role be to empathize with, or to resist, this recipe for ever more ambitious, intimate government?

In 15 months we shall know the answer to that, and the names of the nominees.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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