A year of topsy-turvy ideologies

Party labels aren't what they used to be, and they're even less clear as Bush and Gore jostle for the center.

The two leading presidential candidates are undergoing ideological makeovers so dramatic that lately it's getting hard to tell who's the Democrat and who's the Republican.

In 2000, more than any election cycle in recent memory, predictability is out, replaced by a topsy-turvy free-for-all as the contenders scramble to seize the political center and, perhaps, redefine their parties in a post-cold-war, post-red-ink era.

Consider these stances:

*George W. Bush's positions on Social Security, Medicare, and education are surprisingly similar to those of the Democratic Leadership Council, the think tank that provided much of the intellectual firepower for President Clinton's programs.

*Al Gore - head of the party once known as tax-and-spend liberals - portrays himself as the defender of fiscal conservatism, vowing to wipe out the national debt.

*Republicans, long the party of law and order, are bashing the US attorney general for heavy-handed use of federal police power, citing showdowns in Waco, Texas; Ruby Ridge, Idaho; and most recently the Elian Gonzalez raid in Miami.

"We've got many new dividing lines on domestic and foreign policy," says Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation here. In a post-cold-war era, "yesterday's internationalists are today's isolationists, and there are all sorts of hard-hearted liberals and warm-hearted conservatives out there."

So, why is this year's dash to the center, a regular springtime feature of American presidential elections, particularly pell-mell?

Part of the reason is a dropoff in the number of traditional hot-button issues. The economy remains strong, even if the markets are volatile. Crime rates have fallen to 30-year lows, and welfare rolls are shrinking.

Moreover, the major parties are struggling to articulate their positions on some of the emerging issues, such as patients' rights and global trade. As a result, the way is clear for the men who would be president to redefine - to a greater degree than usual - what they and their parties stand for.

So far, some of Mr. Bush's policies are decidedly middle of the-road - and surprisingly similar to those of the Democratic Leadership Council.

On Medicare, both would give senior citizens money to buy private insurance. Both would allow people to invest some Social Security money in the stock market. Both would boost federal education spending, yet impose tough accountability on schools.

'Good' government is back

Yet these unusual commonalities also highlight a growing bipartisan consensus that government does, indeed, have an important role to play in the lives of Americans.

"Bush has left the 'leave-us-alone coalition' headed by [former Speaker Newt] Gingrich" - in which there was talk of closing down entire federal departments - "and now employs the rhetoric of limited but energetic government," says Mr. Wittmann.

He adds, only half-jokingly, that if "the political battle from the late '60s to the early '90s was over the excesses of liberalism," then today's battle "is all about the excesses of centrism."

On the Democratic side, the party of the big-spending New Deal and Great Society is now recasting itself as champion of fiscal responsibility. Or at least Mr. Gore is. He is touting a plan to pay off the national debt by 2013 - and tags Bush's $483 billion tax-cut plan as irresponsible.

In what he calls a remarkable case of "issue cross-dressing," former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert Reischauer says "we have the recent history in which Democrats transformed the country's largest deficits into its largest surpluses." Having helped achieve that, he says, they want political credit for it.

The new law and order

Meanwhile, it's law-and-order Republicans who are bashing Attorney General Janet Reno and Democrats for being overzealous in enforcing US law.

This is part of a growing effort by Republicans to protect constituents against "the armed imperial state," says Eric Sterling, president of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation here.

With crime not topping the public agenda, this sentiment - one often shared by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union - has become the focus, rather than building prisons or boosting jail sentences.

Even racial politics have made for some topsy-turvyness. Bush has made a point of appealing to Latinos in general and Mexican-Americans in particular, a traditionally Democratic group. Gore's break with Clinton over the Elian case, meanwhile, was widely seen as an effort to woo Cuban-Americans, typically in the GOP camp.

"They're both trying to appeal to each other's Latinos," says political analyst Bruce Cain, at the University of California, Berkeley.

What today's voters are realizing - never more so than in Election 2000 - is that party labels may not be as informative as they used to be. Increasingly, "party labels are not like X-rays," which enable the voter to see the party's entire set of core values, says Mr. Sterling. Instead, he says, "they're like costumes," presenting a specific image.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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