LANSING, MICH. — OK, dear reader, it's test time. Complete this sentence: "When you get right down to it, this year's presidential race is really about _________."
Anyone? Anyone? Tough, isn't it? There are a lot of potential answers. Some might answer with "sustaining our economic good times." Some might blurt out "education." Still others might say "the need to focus on restoring honor and integrity to the White House."
There is always some disagreement about the meaning of an election, but rarely is the focus so diffuse this late in the race. This campaign is suffering from an inability to focus. We have endured 10 months of campaigning, two conventions, and three presidential debates - and we still lack a defining issue for this campaign.
There are more than a few reasons for this. Times are good, which means there is no implicit issue. Furthermore the candidates aren't helping much. Al Gore changes "issues" more than a supermodel changes clothes. And George W. Bush, well, he'd rather avoid issues altogether and discuss how he's going to "bring us together." But like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. And if the candidates don't want to lock on to a national issue for this campaign, the states will manage.
All of which brings us here, to Lansing, Michigan, and something called Kids First! Yes! - which, despite all the exclamation points, is not a new Broadway musical. Kids First! is a statewide ballot proposal here, and though you may have never heard of it, it may have a large impact on this presidential run.
The proposal is a state version of Mr. Bush's public school voucher plan. Under the proposal, kids in some districts would be eligible for roughly $3,300 to attend the private or charter school of their parents' choice.
The money would come from that child's public school district, which has ruffled a few feathers around the state. There is a formidable lineup of people opposed to the plan, including the teachers union, the state's former Democratic governor, and its current Republican governor, John Engler.
Mr. Engler, who was one of Bush's earliest backers, has been mum about why he supports W. but opposes one of the most critical tenets of his education plan.
Advocates of Kids First! say they expect the vote to be very close on the issue, but they maintain they will win with the help of a strong African-American vote in Detroit. And here's where the presidential race comes into play.
Inside Michigan the proposal is just as big as the presidential race; in some places it's bigger. And the closer and more contentious the vote on the proposal gets, the higher the likely voter turnout. And the voters who turn out for Kids First! may not be all that supportive of George W. If, indeed, black voters turn out in force, it is hard to imagine W. getting a lot of their support. What's more, groups like the teachers' union, which are inclined to vote for Gore but may not be inspired by him, may also turn out simply to defeat the measure.
Michigan is, of course, only one state. But it's critical for both Bush and Gore, and in the end, Kids First! may tip the scales to the Democrat.
Fights like this will be the main story during the final stretch of this campaign. The polls may put Bush up by 3 points today and Gore up by 3 tomorrow, but none of them mean much because this race isn't really national anymore. It isn't who's up in the national polls that matters, but who is up in Pennsylvania and Florida and Michigan and Washington. And in each of those states, it may be a congressional race or an issue like river damming that determines who turns out and in what numbers.
Tip O'Neill, the late House Speaker who was fond of the maxim "all politics is local," would love this race. But if you haven't been able to figure out what exactly is going on in this campaign, don't expect the picture to get a whole lot clearer here in the home stretch. This focus-free campaign will likely continue in all its amorphous glory right up to election day. What is this election about? The campaign may be for the most important office in the world, but the answer is probably on your local news.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society