Apathy a front-runner in presidential race


HANOVER, N.H. -- The country that just proved it had no patience for lengthy political dramas had better get ready. Here comes the 2000 campaign.

The nation holds these presidential contests every four years, of course. But this one is different, and not only because it will take place amid the symbolism of the millennial year. It's different because the election will occur in the wake of a political ordeal that repelled the nation.

That makes the presidential election at once more critical and less consequential than any election of our time. It is more critical because the New Hampshire primary, the nation's first, comes almost one year to the day after the completion of a political test of a different sort, the Senate trial of President Clinton. In that test, the only clear verdict was the public's indifference and impatience with politicians.

The 2000 presidential race is less consequential than others because the House impeachment and Senate trial have suggested that politics is not as important a part of U.S. culture as it was in the past. A new Center for the Study of American Elections study has a startling statistic: Voter turnout in the November elections, when the papers and airwaves were full of talk about the first presidential impeachment in 131 years, was the lowest in more than a half-century -- despite the addition of 5.5 million new voters.

The inevitable conclusion: The choice of a president, which Americans have traditionally regarded as their most intimate public act, may not be as meaningful now as it was when voters selected Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy.

The great irony, of course, is that this public indifference comes at a time when the next election holds unusual suspense. Here are some of the ways that the next presidential election is far different from those in the past:

Can a sense of mystery and a sense of inevitability win a presidential nomination and a presidential election? The mystery and inevitability surround Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is regarded as the front-runner in the Republican race even though he has not announced nor campaigned in New Hampshire, whose primary will probably be next Feb. 15, or in Iowa, which is to hold the first presidential caucuses next Feb. 7. Ordinarily the candidate who runs on inevitability is well known to the public. Mr. Bush purposely is unknown, but that can't last forever, which prompts the next question:

How will Republican voters make their decisions among three candidates whose names are familiar and whose coffers will be filled, and among three others who have either the organization or the potential to emerge as strong contenders? For the first time in a quarter of a century, one party has three well-known and well-financed prospective candidates: Mr. Bush, former Cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole and magazine publisher Steve Forbes. But the field also includes three others with formidable potential -- former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who has the best organization in the early primary states; former Vice President Dan Quayle, who will raise substantial money and may battle Gary Bauer to win the allegiance of religious conservatives; and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has an appealing political profile and an irresistible story as a POW in North Vietnam.

"All these candidates with sustainability make it possible that this race will go on much longer than recent presidential nominating contests have gone on, even maybe all the way to the convention," says Sandy Maisel, a Colby College political scientist.

Will there be a debate within the Democratic Party? For the first time since 1948, there may be no ideological war in an open Democratic race. Right now there are two candidates, Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. A third, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, may join the field. And though there may be marginal differences among them, to the average soul the three are indistinguishable: all respectable, all guys, all dark-haired, all tall, all fairly moderate, all intelligent, all solid citizens, all Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Princeton).

Will President Clinton be a factor? The vice president of a popular chief executive ordinarily would play up his closeness to the president. Mr. Clinton has high approval ratings, but Mr. Gore is going to have to keep his distance.

Then again, the party that opposes a tainted president ordinarily would highlight its differences with the administration. The Republicans will be wary of doing that. In that as in so many other ways, Mr. Clinton is a different sort of U.S. president.

Will anyone care? You tell us.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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