Huge campaign funds can't buy uneasy voters' hearts

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Is it possible that the power of money to determine elections has passed its peak? It might not seem so, with the two major party front-runners in the 2000 presidential race having already amassed so much money that there isn't enough left for other candidates.

But consider a couple of other more subtle facts that suggest fat campaign chests have yet to decide the race before it's even started.

Third-party viability - no small factor in Bill Clinton's defeat of George Bush - is clearly an electoral influence. And its evolution can be seen as the Reform Party is slipping away from the control of Ross Perot, thanks to the victory of Jesse Ventura in last fall's Minnesota gubernatorial election. The party last month elected Mr. Ventura's candidate, Jack Gargen, as its new head.

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The other serious consideration in 2000 has got to be that a large part of the public is fed up with the lack of goodwill, compromise, or even civility in Washington between the two old parties over issues that merit debate and legislation.

This growing cynicism about the political process has helped dampen interest in politics and even in voting for the youngest generation of voters. An article in the August Atlantic Monthly, called "A Politics for Generation X," suggests one way to overcome voter apathy - among the newly enfranchised generation - would be to deal with the issues of greatest concern to them. Its author, Ted Halstead, president of the New America Foundation in Washington, argues it's an oversimplification to say Generation X is economically conservative and socially liberal. There are important nuances to their views - economically conservative, yes, but with a populist concern at the growing inequality of US incomes. These people accept the concept of a balanced budget. But what they think should be done within that budget may be closer to traditional Democratic ideas.

"Xers are more concerned than other generations about rising income inequality, and are the most likely to support government intervention to reverse it. The majority believe that the state should do more to help Americans get ahead," writes Mr. Halstead.

When it comes to their alleged social liberalism, he says that "although the young are presumed to be more tolerant and socially permissive than their elders, today's young are returning to religion, have family-oriented aspirations, and are proving to be unsupportive of some traditional liberal programs, among them affirmative action."

They are looking, he says, for a "new values consensus that lies somewhere between the secular permissiveness of the left and the cultural intolerance of the right."

Now, what have these arguments got to do with raising money and the end of politics as we know it? The emergence of a third party having something closely resembling Halstead's formula, particularly if it was headed by a national figure - who might have been eased out of running in one of the major parties because of the "lock" on money - would be aided by new factors that have come into play in the nation.

Money still matters, but the power of the Internet, along with the influence of radio and TV talk shows, are changing the ways voters make up their minds. Many political decisions are still influenced by emotion and by the ties of the past, true. But the plethora of competing sources of news and opinion also are opening the possibility of a serious discussion of ideas. And deep in their hearts, most voters know ideas - and the connections between issues - matter more than smart TV ad slogans.

It may not be the year a third-party candidate can win. But it's not just going to be a question of how much money the major parties have raised since the day after the last election. There is, as Halstead claims, a growing sense of unease - not just in Generation X - that the long-term problems of the country are not being dealt with, that Congress is always looking for the easy way out and for something that will help win the next election instead of preparing rationally for the future. Election 2000 may not be what it seems so far - especially if there is a candidate who has the courage to put the real issues even ahead of winning.

* Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor-in-chief of the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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