WASHINGTON — There is good news and bad news. The good news is it's still very early in the 2000 presidential campaign, meaning there is still time for Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush to explain exactly what they have in mind for the country. The bad news is it's still very early in the 2000 presidential campaign, meaning there is still time for ... you get the picture.
We are now almost exactly six months from election day and the greatest question before voters seems to be "what flavor of vanilla do you prefer?"
Every four years the cranks in the American electorate growl about how there is no difference between the two mainstream candidates seeking the presidency, but rarely have they been so right.
What are the big issues of this campaign?
Education? Mr. Gore would spend a lot more than Mr. Bush, but Bush acknowledges that money needs to be spent.
Taxes? Bush would give much bigger cuts than Gore, but Gore promises some chopping.
What about John McCain's crusade, campaign-finance reform? Both Gore and Bush are extremely strong in the lip service department here, but both men have their hands in the political till.
For the voter just reading the headlines, the whole thing has to look a lot like Brand X vs. Brand Y, or "Brand Ech!" and "Brand Why?"
Of course, there are some differences, but in the end much of it is differences in degree, not really in kind.
And that is why the rhetoric around this campaign has been so harsh.
Nothing creates a scuffle like two guys fighting over the same patch of land.
Much of this past week has concerned where Gore and Bush stand on Social Security.
W. recently announced that he would like to let people invest a small amount of the money they have put aside in Social Security. He says people should have the chance to make some money with the money set aside for them - though he has not released any details on how his plan would work.
Gore's response? Bush is working on a "secret plan" that will bankrupt the Social Security trust fund. Bush's people point out, rightly, that some Democrats favor a similar idea. But Gore battles on, pounding the issue where he can in the hope that he can make the idea unpalatable and paint Bush as a radical.
Gore meanwhile has opened up a second front on Bush, slamming him as a pawn of the National Rifle Association. The allegation follows a comment by an NRA official who said that if Bush won, the NRA would set up shop in the White House.
Bush's response? He will do what's best for the country regardless of interest groups. Oh, and by the way, Wasn't Gore in the NRA at some point? Bush asked. Well, no, but it was a great shot by Bush. As these barbs have flown back and forth, Bush has undoubtedly gotten in the best so far by simply playing it cool.
And so, here we are. It's early May, but the contours of this race are shaping up nicely.
It's funny, really, that Bush has gotten so angry about being compared with Clinton. In many ways he is following Clinton's 1992 playbook - adopting bits and pieces of Democratic ideas and putting Republican spins on them.
Bush wants the federal government to have a role in education, but a small one; he wants to help the poor, but without spending much. This is what Clinton did in 1992 with Republican ideas like welfare reform and the middle-class tax cut.
The difference between 2000 and 1992 though, is that Gore isn't really giving an inch. He wants to hold on to the centrist ideas that got Clinton elected. He has union support, but favors more open trade with China. He doesn't propose any big spending except for education.
These two guys are so close on the issues that what may really matter this year is the fight for Congress. It is the House and Senate, after all, that end up determining what these ideas really look like in law.
Absent any real issues in the presidential race, we may be moving toward the first election ever that will be decided almost completely on style - what we in Washington often mislabel "character."
Right now the fight looks to be Gore, the allegation-hurling Raging Bull, vs. W., sidestepping, counter-punching Artful Dodger. The jabs will fly fast and furious in the coming months over tiny inches of ideological land - and none of it will have anything to do with "character."
The thing is, none of it will have much to do with the country's direction either. How do you like your vanilla?
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