The Washington Times

Presidential elections usually come down to competing visions of where we go from here. This election is somewhat complicated by the fact that “we” may not want to go anywhere, because “we” like “here” so much.

Peace, prosperity, a benevolent technological revolution, equity markets that keep going up, government budget surpluses as far as the eye can see – it all adds up to an unprecedented backdrop for a presidential election. For most of the electorate, there is no real sense of danger. To be sure, everything could go to the devil by November. But what if it doesn’t?

First of all, it seems likely, comes a battle over whose political property the status quo is. Irving Kristol once famously wrote that political success will follow for the party with the best answer to the question, “Who owns the future?” An underlying question today is, “Who owns the present?” That’s because the first order of business with regard to the future is not to screw it up.

The policy status quo in Washington is hardly the result of a sudden outbreak of consensus among the political leaders of both parties. There are some elements of consensus, of course: the need for long-term price stability, which manifests itself in the near-unanimous support for Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan; belief in the superiority of the market in the efficient allocation of goods and services; belief that the government should not return to deficit spending.

But beyond these elements, the status quo is a product of political conflict between the two parties. The most recent clash yielded the principle that government must not spend the Social Security trust fund surplus – nor cut taxes such that funds generated by Social Security taxes go toward other government spending again. The status quo embraces modest annual increases in government spending. It pits tax cuts against government spending beyond such increases, conceding, in moderation, the legitimacy of both. The status quo rejects tax increases and also rejects efforts to cut government spending.

The policy status quo, in a way that I think is underappreciated, is the single biggest factor shaping the primary debate in both parties. Each party has a candidate who has wrapped himself in the mantle of this policy status quo; each party has a candidate who is trying to change the subject from the maintenance of the status quo to the status quo as a point of departure.

After seven years as vice president, Al Gore obviously has good reason to wrap himself in the present. What is striking is the clearer picture of Sen. John McCain that has emerged in recent weeks. He remains something of a maverick in the GOP, but that is because he is running largely in defense of the policy status quo. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise; he is a United States senator, and his own votes and actions in the political battles of the past few years have contributed to the creation of the status quo. His views on Social Security and tax cuts are entirely of a piece with it.

And then there are the two candidates looking beyond the status quo, George W. Bush and Bill Bradley. Note that neither has repudiated the policy status quo – neither points to fundamental flaws embedded in it. Each, however, portrays the current prosperity as an opportunity to do more. Mr. Bush offers his “compassionate conservative” vision for helping the poor, as well as a tax cut derided by both Mr. Gore and Mr. McCain as out of bounds on grounds of expense. Mr. Bradley offers a progressive vision encapsulated in the phrase, “If not now, when?” – and illustrates it with a proposal for health insurance reform that Mr. Gore likewise attacks as expensive beyond the tolerance of the policy status quo.

Given that the White House currently belongs to a Democrat, it is perhaps not surprising that the Democratic front-runner, Mr. Gore, is a defender of the status quo; nor is it particularly surprising that the GOP front-runner, Mr. Bush, wants to move on from it.

Obviously, anyone who wishes to operate outside the status quo will have to contend with those who define themselves as its preservers. The theme of the latter will be the risk posed by the plans of the former. The bet is that a vision of the present is a sufficient vision for the future.