PARTING SHOT

Campaign ’88: Who can win? Who can govern?

The press is often criticized for focusing on the horse race aspect of a political contest-who’s ahead, wh<’s dropping back in the pack, sneaking up on the inside, saving up dough and manpower for a final blitz just before Super Tuesday, etc. Why? Because the horse race is easy to write about compared to the alternative: digging down and talking about ideas, which seldom translate to the splashy stuff of headlines. But in the end we are actually voting on a set of ideas, not a set of vocal cords or a t\ ’inkling eye or a fist thumping on a podium.

This is a confusing political year, with even the activists in both parties divided and unsure. But or a moment let’s be optimists, like the man in the Chinese poem who said “A fire has burned my roof. . .now nothing blocks the m moon.” Rather than despair over the absence of a clearly unbeatable front-runner (note to Republicans: Bush is a front-runner, but far from unbeatable), we have the opportunity-the duty-to put the horse back in front of the cart where it belongs and apply what I call the VC test (Values to Issues to Candidates) to Campaign ’88. After all, politics properly begins not with fervid allegiance to some charismatic god-figure or with an eye to the quicksilver opinion polls. It begins with a discussion of values and a vision of the good society. From that vision of a society that deserves our loyalty, our taxes, and if need be our blood, we then move to issues: how c an a certain value-say, respect for the dignity of labor-be advanced by focusing on a certain issue-free trade, protectionist measures. worker ownership of businesses? Then, having moved from values to issues, we are ready to look around for a candidate v ho shares those values and will work for those issues.

This process sounds idealistic and difficult. It certainly rules out unthinking obedience to the party line of either Democrats or Republicans. That’s fine. Instead of whining about lack of “leaders” and ideas, we should remember that in this country we are supposed to lead, not serve as passive sheep Mealing a chorus of bumper sticker slogans. That, of course, means that we must bring to the table something more than a desire to win an election by any means in order to get “our guy” into the White House. We must engage our candidates in a dialogue about governing the country.

Sadly, the honks and whistles of the election carnival make dialogue hard to hear. Already the winnowing in Iowa and New Hampshire has begun, knocking out candidates by a process most generously described as arbitrary. It bears repeating that on the Democratic side, only a tiny minority of registered voters turns out for these hyper-inflated affairs, and most of them are considerably more liberal than mainstream Democrats around the country. And something else: despite the state’s disproportionate influence in choosing the Democratic nominee, Iowa has voted Democratic in just one general election since 1948.

Hence the creation of Super Tuesday. To win in November, the Democrats must regain a good chunk of the once-solid South. With almost a third of the delegates at stake on March 8, the more conservative South would wield more power in choosing a nominee who would then be more palatable to the nation in November. No more McGoverns and Mondales.

Hence, too, the inevitability of Al Gore, who will eventually run as vice president on a ticket with Mario (hold on, he’s coming) Cuomo. And then-but see how easily we are lured back to the horse race? Whether the nominee is Mario Cuomo, Puzo, or Andretti should not be our primary concern. The question, again: how will that vision of the good society be furthered if Candidate X reaches the White House?

Our answers will differ, of course. Applying the VC test, George Bush flunks, at least in the early going, for reasons unrelated to his prep school/wimp image problem. Starting with the belief that nobody has a right to inherit the presidency, and further, that in dangerous times like these we need a president whose mind is on full alert status, we must say that Bush’s resume should grow no larger, Bush was either a cipher, a non-person, during the planning of the Iran-contra debacle, or he was aware of it and did nothing. Take your pick, but neither option inspires much confidence in Bush. The spat with the unpopular Dan Rather was a nasty spectacle with two villains, but it assumes another dimension when we recall that Bush earlier turned down a one-hour interview with Marvin Kalb. (“It wouldn’t advance his candidacy,” said an aide, ever mindful of the horse race.) So the man refuses a free hour in which to knead and probe ideas, arouse and educate the voters, but accepts a live circus spot on the evening news, a forum easier to control. When the vice president nixes cross-candidate questioning in a debate, hoping to avoid Bob Dole’s barbs, we are reminded that (he race is “Bush’s to lose.” Whoa. Horse race thinking again. If Bush wants his own presidency and not the tattered threads of Reagan’s, he must spell out in specifics where he would steer the country once his boss heads for the ranch.

Following the VC test, we should be grateful to two men who will not receive their party’s nomination: Gary Hart and Bruce Babbitt. The Hart tragicomedy (Idea Man Trips on Libido) moved the nation a step closer to gagging on image politics and the tyranny of television. Some citizens and reporters were embarrassed, sickened into looking for substance. That threw the spotlight briefly onto Bruce Babbitt, a candidate with a keen mind, a courageous disregard for some Democratic interest blocs, and almost no chance to win the horse race. Unlike the front-runners, Babbitt is/was talking about a 5 percent “progressive national consumption tax” instead of dishonestly denying the need for taxes in any deficit-busting plan. He was also willing to say words that seldom pass Democratic lips, advocating means-testing for well-off Social Security recipients.

And the case of Babbitt can also help us to clarify values. Persuasive and thoughtful in print, he was a twitching, gulping mess in the early televised debates. The Babbit dissonance should teach us something. If we value mental acuity and independent thinking, we must be willing to look past a politician’s delivery to what is being delivered. Besides, the show is over: no candidate on the horizon can use television with the grace and deftness of a Reagan.

This springtime optimism may seem wildly off the mark in six months. Campaign ’88may collapse into an empty charade likeCampaign ’84. But regardless of the trackpositions of the candidates left after SuperTuesday, good spirits are justified if we movecloser to growing up as voters. The carnivaland the horse race are fun, but there is workto be done. As citizens we must forge that vision of the good society; only when we havedone our work can we spot the candidateswho have not done theirs.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments