A campaign year with substance

Bush and Gore are talking policy more than most past presidential candidates.

It's early yet, but so far the presidential race might fairly be called PolicyFest 2000.

Since early May, both presumptive candidates have been pumping out detailed positions on a range of important issues. Last week alone, Vice President Al Gore talked about cancer research, children's mental-health treatment, and protections for national forests. Gov. George W. Bush weighed in with his own conservation plan - standing in front of cool blue Lake Tahoe - while continuing to promote big Social Security and arms-control proposals.

This season of substance can be partly explained by the government surplus. Freed of fiscal constraints, Democrats and Republicans can propose programs without appearing profligate.

Partly, it is driven by the candidates' desire to define themselves before the other guy does it for them. Both want voters to think of them as the choice with big ideas - whether those voters have actually read all their multipoint plans or not.

Finally, an abundance of detail fills the need of new communications technologies for content. When an Internet surfer clicks on the "Positions" icon on a candidate Web site, the appearance of "Under Construction" doesn't win too many supporters.

Messrs. Gore and Bush "have to have their positions up and available in ways that candidates haven't in the past," says Calvin Jillson, chairman of the political science department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Specificity about issues has not always been a hallmark of presidential campaigns. In past years, candidates sometimes focused more on trying to convey general impressions about their ability to handle obviously important national problems, such as the cold war or a recession.

Policy is sometimes not the first thing on a presumptive candidate's mind in the preconvention period, anyway. At this point in the 1988 election cycle, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was preoccupied with handling a challenge from within his own party - Jesse Jackson.

Even after his nomination, Governor Dukakis seemed to prefer talking about what he had done in Massachusetts to what he would do in the White House. He stood by while Vice President George Bush painted him as a free-spender who was soft on crime. Dukakis's double-digit lead in the polls evaporated.

Then came Bill Clinton. Both as a candidate and as president, Mr. Clinton has demonstrated the popular appeal of leaping from one symbolic issue to the next, however small.

Critics have called Clinton's past focus on issues such as school uniforms more mayoral than presidential. But in today's post-cold war, post-deficit age, the label "Democrat" or "Republican" doesn't necessarily mean that much to voters anymore, in terms of specific policy. Candidates are forced to ideologically define themselves.

Against this background, today's candidate's policy proposals may be less campaign promises than attempts at political self-characterization.

For Bush and Gore, "it is not so important that Americans know the specifics of that five-point policy as that they know that there is one," says Brad Rourke, director of the Project on Campaign Conduct. "The desire is to be perceived as the candidate with weighty ideas."

Those weighty ideas can be an effective means of telling the candidates apart. Bush's proposals for Social Security, for instance, would allow taxpayers to invest a portion of their Social Security levies in the stock market.

Yet campaign proposals are often far from implementation-ready. Bush's ideas for Social Security lack important details, like how he would finance the transition from the current system.

And sometimes a candidate reverses course once he is elected. President Bush's reelection bid was doomed once he broke his "no new taxes" pledge, according to some in the GOP.

"You sometimes find it difficult to achieve goals when you govern," says Mr. Rourke.

In political terms, Bush has used policy proposals as an effective tool to help him move back toward the center, say some experts. His arms-control plan contained a proposal for deep warhead cuts - not something one would automatically expect from a Republican candidate. He's talked about education and conservation often in recent weeks.

Gore, meanwhile, has begun trying to present his own positive, proposal-oriented side since Memorial Day. Last week he touched on everything from keeping wilderness areas pristine to responsible fatherhood.

Gore advisers say it was crucial for their candidate to spend some time criticizing Bush's stands on important issues, such as Social Security. Having done so, he will now shift gears and continue with the policy-proposal production line, they say.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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