Candidates haven't yet captivated

What ever happened to "the vision thing" in presidential politics?

This year, instead of President Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you," or even President Bush's "1,000 points of light," the race is all about $25 prescription-drug premiums and $1.3-trillion tax cuts.

It's part of the reason, observers say, the race is so close, with neither candidate inspiring enough voters to pull ahead.

Partly, it's all because of the times: With peace and prosperity reigning, there's no urgency for a grand vision about the nation - or the role of government. Partly, it's also the men: Neither major-party candidate seems prone to wax poetic. And in the era of independent voters, neither man wants to risk sounding rabidly ideological - thus alienating people who could be crucial in a tight race.

Yet as the candidates head into their second debate tonight, it's also sparked a yearning for even a kernel of well-articulated vision - for George W. Bush waxing eloquent about the case for change in Washington or Al Gore discussing what he believes, not just what he'd do.

"Man does not live by marginal tax rates alone," quips Marshall Wittmann, a senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Indeed, the candidates' inability or unwillingness to articulate a grander plan may be hurting them in the polls, say analysts.

For instance, "Bush will talk about education - and all of a sudden his numbers will get better with people concerned about education, but they'll drop among those concerned about Medicare and Social Security or healthcare," says Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster.

"There's been no consistent 'grab the voters and move them all at one time,' " he says - no "umbrella" strategy or vision that captures the imagination of a wide swath of the electorate.

But in today's social and political climate, finding a grander vision can be hard.

For one thing, America's persistent prosperity has made many Americans wary of any plan that represents a major change or involves potential risks. The end of the cold war left the US without one of its major forums for ideology and vision.

Also, there's great ambivalence about the role of government today. "One reason we're having such a difficult time getting to a vision, is we haven't made a decision about what government should do," says Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver.

People say, " 'Well, maybe we should have a prescription-drug benefit, but gosh, we don't want more government,' and 'Well, maybe we should have a lock box on Social Security, but gosh, we really want individual investment [of Social Security funds] in the stock market.' "

And that means the race is fought out "issue by issue and value by value," adds Mr. Ciruli, with candidates cobbling together programs that aren't necessarily ideologically consistent.

Mr. Bush, for instance, argues government should cede some responsibility on prescription drugs and Social Security, yet he's advocating a bigger federal role in education.

In fact, candidates have to avoid sounding too ideological - too much like bust-up-the-government former Speaker Newt Gingrich, or like government-can-fix-everything President Franklin Roosevelt. Fiercely nonpartisan and independent swing voters just don't connect with pitches that are spinning with ideology.

Despite all these constraints, the two candidates have sometimes tried to sketch out visions.

Bush's early "compassionate conservativism" had some substance - and he even used phrases such as "rallying the armies of compassion," observes the conservative Mr. Wittmann But his more-recent "Real Plans for Real People" is quite generic.

Mr. Gore's middle-class populism and declarations that "I will fight for you" form a semi-coherent vision, although it's often tempered with caveats that his plans are "targeted" - to insulate him from charges of being a big-government liberal.

Furthermore, Gore is often accused of being too full of facts - that listening to him is like trying to drink from a fire hose spewing stats and numbers. Now, Bush, to prove his competence, has responded with more facts.

"People are having trouble keeping up," says Eric Rademacher, a University of Cincinnati pollster. They get whipsawed "because they don't have enough objective information - and because for every assertion by one campaign, there's a quick rebut by the other."

Of course the irony is that the president doesn't legislate. Congress does. This campaign's details will likely become irrelevant when a new president and Congress start to hammer out workable plans for a prescription-drugs benefit, taxes, and the like.

In the meantime, Wittmann and others detect a simmering public desire for a greater articulation of vision.

"There is an ache in the American soul for something larger," he says. It's seen, he says, in everything from the success of Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," to Sen. John McCain's campaign to the success of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Whether either candidate can begin to speak eloquently about broader themes and principles - including in tonight's debate - could help determine who wins in November.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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