The Washington Times
We are far enough along now into presidential campaign 2000 to take note of the dog that isn’t barking. If you listen closely, you will figure out what you are not hearing:
“It’s a shame we don’t have other/more/better candidates to choose from.” In elections past, this has usually been a mantra among voters, duly echoed and amplified by reporters and analysts watching the race who often share the sentiment. Remember the taunts aimed at the “Seven Dwarfs”? The cries of “Where’s Mario?” and “Where’s Newt?” Not this time.
Following Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, Al Gore looked to be positioned to claim the Democratic nomination by acclamation. That would have been an astonishing course of events, however. It was unusual enough for Bill Clinton to be spared a Democratic primary challenge in 1996.
Against substantial odds, a president on whose watch his party lost control of Congress for the first time in 40 years actually managed to persuade the party that he alone was the instrument of its salvation. Jimmy Carter, after all, had to contend with Ted Kennedy in 1980.
Now if, in addition to rallying behind Bill Clinton in 1995-96, the party was also anointing Mr. Gore – if, in other words, all serious Democrats had agreed four years in advance that Mr. Gore would face no challenge whatsoever for the nomination – that would have been a development reminiscent of the days of party bosses getting together to settle things in smoke-filled rooms. Even Vice President George Bush had a serious primary fight in 1988.
Bill Bradley stepped forward and quickly established his bona fides as an alternative to Mr. Gore. Mr. Gore remains front-runner and the choice of the party establishment, of course. But Mr. Bradley’s presence in the race provides an outlet for those Democrats who harbor doubts about Mr. Gore, whether because of prior doubts about Mr. Clinton, of Mr. Gore’s electability, or of Mr. Gore’s commitment to the progressive wing of the party, etc.
One of the most interesting things about the Bradley campaign is the candidate’s reputation as a thoughtful man. This allows Democrats flirting with disaffection from Mr. Gore to see in Mr. Bradley a sympathetic figure, a vessel into which they may pour views of their own and get a fair hearing. So it is that Democrats unhappy with Mr. Gore seem reasonably content to face a choice between him and Mr. Bradley. There does not seem to be much yearning for another choice.
On the Republican side, after the 1996 Dole defeat, most people expected a wide-open race this year. Then came George W. Bush, and the most impressive presidential campaign organization in recent memory. Mr. Bush had the name, the money, the organization – and suddenly it looked like the GOP contest might be a coronation.
Mr. Bush remains the strong favorite. But he is not the nominee by default. Those Republicans who want another option have somewhere congenial to go among the current field.
Sen. John McCain turns out to be a fairly attractive candidate for many of those who have come to dislike or mistrust Mr. Bush, and even for those who do like Mr. Bush. Mr. McCain is the essence of character; his biography is irresistible. His heretical message on campaign-finance reform resonates with some voters, and others are willing to discount it given other things they like about him. Meanwhile, the presence of Steve Forbes in the race satisfies ideological conservatives unwilling to cut their conscience in the name of “electability.” As in the case of supporters of Gary Bauer among social conservatives, they may in the end support the GOP nominee, but they are currently more interested in registering their views. Whereas Mr. Bradley is a kind of catchall for Democratic dissent, the GOP field offers its particular constituencies specific choices.
Democrats may hunger for a candidate with Mr. Clinton’s political skills but without his liabilities; Republicans may hunger for the next incarnation of Ronald Reagan. But in practical terms, members of both parties have recognized the element of fantasy in their longings and seem reasonably content with the real-world choices they have.