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Presidential campaign lacks vision, high aims


WASHINGTON -- Turn on your television set and you are likely to come upon Al Gore sitting at a computer and looking interested as some high school student explains what he is doing.

Open your newspaper and there is George W. Bush sitting in a tiny little chair and reading to some first-graders.

You may have imagined that the Democratic vice president and the Republican governor of Texas are running for president of the United States and leader of the free world. But they appear to be running for school superintendent.

Neither campaign makes any bones about what the candidates are doing. The opinion polls show that education is the issue of the greatest concern to Americans this year. And they show that the school question is particularly important to the women voters, who have become the prime targets of both campaigns. So if you want to hunt ducks, you go where the ducks are.

Nobody makes much of the fact that the president doesn't have a great deal of influence over schools. The federal government still provides less than 10 percent of the funding. The federal role is most pronounced in defining the way that money is spent with such things as Title 9, the section of a long-ago education bill intended to give women's sports parity with men's sports, at least in federal funding.

There are, nonetheless, contentious questions involving the schools. The debate over vouchers is an emotional one. There is a serious dispute over testing of both public school pupils and teachers. And, of course, there is the continuing argument over whether the Democrats are in the pocket of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, unions providing valuable help to the Gore campaign.

But Mr. Bush is not one of those conservatives who wants to abolish the Department of Education and promote home schooling. So it is doubtful that the future of public education will be radically altered by the choice of the next president Nov. 7. And it is even more doubtful that many parents will notice a difference in their local schools.

This is a time in American politics, however, in which the miniaturization of the campaign is the rule rather than the exception. Major campaigns, including many for the Senate and governorships as well as the White House, operate with a wealth of information from focus groups and public opinion polls that are updated every 24 hours. If there is some way to strike a nerve with redheaded, left-handed accountants, the political consultants will find it and use it.

Education isn't the only issue getting such special attention. One day it is Mr. Gore stumping in Silicon Valley to show his commitment to high-tech businesses, another it is Mr. Bush trying to reach environmentalists by posing before a beautiful lake. Nor is there anything illegal, immoral or fattening in such tactics. Politicians have always appealed to voters by dividing them into blocs with common interests.

There are, however, some weaknesses in this highly mechanized approach to the electorate. The most obvious is that it cannot anticipate the issues that may confront the next president with his most serious challenges. Being devoted to public schools doesn't make him capable of handling a sudden terrorist attack from Libya or dealing with a sudden reversal in the economy. Indeed, there may be no way an election campaign can provide that kind of insight into the candidates.

More to the point, this kind of politics robs the campaign of the appearance of high purpose. If either of the two leading candidates for president has some great vision of the future of American society, he has been successful in hiding it from the electorate. This has been a campaign with very little poetry and music.

The three debates next month could be more revealing about the two men. They will come to the confrontations prepared to bicker over the particulars of their fiscal plans and prescriptions for Social Security and Medicare as well as, of course, what they would to save the public schools. But they may have to go beyond such narrow appeals and tell us what kind of America they would like to see.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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