Idea-men vs. triangulators

Monday's GOP presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, wasn't exactly what one would call compelling television. The people over at Monday Night Football were never in jeopardy of losing the ratings war. But as the final GOP presidential debate of the century came to a close, some things began to come clearly into focus.

First, these things are getting a little more interesting as they go on - in a major development, candidates actually asked real questions of one another Monday. Just think of the excitement when Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, and Orrin Hatch finally confront reality and realize they are wasting their time. We may actually get some real exchanges on stage.

Second, this coming primary season, as short as it will be with all its pushed-up primaries, may actually be more important than the general election that follows it.

As we enter into the real race - the part where people actually vote - there is a battle shaping up not between Democrats and Republicans, but between triangulators (Al Gore and George W. Bush) and idea men (Bill Bradley and John McCain).

In fact, even the campaign appearances are beginning to look that way. Today, Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley will hold a joint appearance in New Hampshire to discuss campaign-finance reform, not to debate so much as to build momentum for a cause they both believe in.

Of course there is more than a little showmanship going on here. Both McCain and Bradley have worked hard to cultivate their respective maverick images, and nothing illustrates unhappiness with "politics as usual" like a bipartisan meeting - particularly one where reform is the watchword.

Still, McCain and Bradley have at least come to the plate with some large proposals for fixing a serious problem in American politics.

On the other side - the side currently on track to win their respective nominations - Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush seem more than happy to try and out-moderate each other.

For Gore, who is basically running on the current administration's accomplishments, this is expected behavior, even smart. For George W., it is really forced - how does one run as an agent of change but not too much change? Regardless, if these two stay in front, get ready for an election centered on who has the better tax-cut plan and pocket-size proposals.

There was a time, of course, when it was the big-idea guys who held the high ground at presidential election time.

Ronald Reagan won the presidency twice, not for having good ideas as much as for having big ideas. And one can't help but think back to 1988 and remember when George W.'s dad was criticized for not having worked out the "vision thing." When he ran on sayings like "a thousand points of light" and "a kinder, gentler nation," they were largely considered throwaway lines for a candidate who needed something to frame his campaign.

But if George Sr. were running today you'd have to like his chances. "Compassionate conservatism" is embraced as a "new idea" though I still have yet to get a clear explanation of what it means.

Bill Clinton's Third Way was the precursor to all this. Now, not having a vision or a big idea around which to organize your run for office has become a strength. Take a vague idea, wrap a catch phrase around it, support a little more of idea "X" and a little less of idea "Y" than your opponent and, voil, you have a campaign.

And this is what McCain and Bradley, the idea men, are really running against. It may be valid to criticize them as largely one-issue candidates, but one issue is better than none.

They have decided to take those American voters who claim they are tired of politics as usual at their word. They are offering something different. In the coming months, we'll find out how serious those voters are about wanting a change.

* Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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