Same Address, but Smaller Office

Whoever wins today succeeds to a presidency diminished - for now - by globalism, prosperity, and low expectations of the governed.

Al Gore appeared with pop piano player Bruce Hornsby at a rally in Dearborn, Mich., this weekend. Unaccountably, the vice president kept referring to the musician as "Rogers Hornsby" - a Hall of Fame second baseman who last played in 1937.

George W. Bush mangled no more syllables himself as he hopped through battleground states on election eve. But the official who introduced him at a Michigan stop made a major-league slip. He called Gen. Colin Powell "Adam Clayton Powell," the late African-American Democratic congressman from New York.

Thousands of sound bites after it began, the presidential election of 2000 is finally slopping to a close. The candidates are staggering through final rallies, their voices hoarse, their emotions high, and their futures uncertain.

The effort required of a presidential candidate and his handlers is immense, and at this point their lives must be a blur. What began years ago as a "what if" in their own minds, and then blossomed in the primaries, is a job as hard as lasting until Game 7 of the World Series. On some level, both men may want it to end.

Yet even though the task of running for president has become exponentially harder, the job itself may have diminished.

As the nation rounds the curve of the 21st century, many voters feel that their lives are little affected by whomever lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The world's problems seem larger today, and the president's powers, by contrast, seem smaller.

That can change - fast. Monitor reporter Richard L. Strout used to describe the haunting night of Dec. 7, 1941, when citizens stunned by Pearl Harbor gathered at the White House fence, just standing there, as if to draw strength from an unseen presence.

But today the nation is at peace and the faucet of prosperity seems controlled by no one person. In the 1960s, scholars discussed the rise of the Imperial Presidency. Today they might mull over the possibility that the US is choosing a host-in-chief.

"Thirty to 40 years down the road, historians will look back on this election as symbolizing the decline of politics," says Robert Dallek, a Boston University historian. "There's a certain sense of the presidency being in eclipse."

If that's true, it is at least partly because the voters want it that way. They're expecting less from the White House, and getting it.

President Clinton has famously adapted to this national mood, structuring much of the middle of his presidency around edge-nibbling proposals.

Thus the Brady gun-control measure did not attempt widespread curves, but called for more thorough checks of gun purchasers. Mr. Clinton's original, sweeping healthcare reorganization bill was roundly defeated - and was replaced by incremental efforts such as bills intended to expand the number of children with health insurance.

"Gridlock" might even be what the nation is voting for. A balance of power, in which divergent views make it difficult for sweeping legislation on anything to be enacted, could be many voters' preferred state of affairs.

In fact, there's a school of thought that holds that all the partisan sniping in Washington these days is at least partly reflective of that old jibe about university faculty infighting - the strife is so bitter because the stakes are so small. There's no Depression to recover from, no cold war to fight, not even a budget deficit to rail against anymore.

The US is now in the midst of "historical gridlock" because "there's nondemand for government," says George Edwards, a presidential historian at Texas A&M University.

It's a state of affairs that may be analogous to the last time the nation thought prosperity might just go on and on into a golden sunrise: the post-Civil War years of the Gilded Age.

Following Reconstruction, the Democrats and then-new Republican Party became relatively equally balanced in strength and fought a series of close elections. They split control of the presidency and Congress for almost 25 years straight, beginning in the 1870s.

But they fought over things that today seem lost in the dry dust of history: tariffs, gold standards, the role of the US in colonizing the Philippines.

"They squabbled over things that in retrospect we don't think are important," says Henry Graff, a presidential historian at Columbia University in New York.

It was a period of small politics that did not really end until the start of World War I.

Today, Vice President Gore and Governor Bush have real differences over issues such as how best to control rising prescription-drug prices and what to do about Social Security. These issues are important, but there's a whole series of mammoth problems looming in the future, from the spread of the HIV virus in Africa to the rise of China, global warming, and the hopelessness of inner-city life, that neither candidate has discussed much on the stump.

Preparing for the presidency is like preparing for a football game. Most coaches have a preset series of plays to use at the beginning. But once those are used up - once the first batch of campaign promises are written into legislation and sent to Congress - reality sets in. Defenses adjust. Weather changes. And the game still has three quarters to go.

Thus, much of the Gore or Bush presidency will be spent dealing with issues that haven't yet arisen. Who would have thought, on Nov. 7, 1992, that the legislative legacy of Bill Clinton would be a balanced budget and welfare reform - and that he would be the second president to be impeached, and face Senate trial?

"I have a great concern that neither one of the present candidates ... seems to be able to look down the road.... The candidates don't seem to project a sense that they are prepared to wrestle with these problems that can't be foreseen," says Mr. Graff.

Nor is either candidate differing much from the mainstream of US political thought. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's jibes about there being little difference between the two major-party candidates, are not, strictly speaking, true. On taxes, on education, on retirement security, the differences between the two are the matter of billions of dollars.

But Al Gore is not George McGovern. George W. Bush is not Barry Goldwater.

"The campaign has revealed the continuation of a tectonic shift that began in the 1970s - a move to the center-right," says William Leuchtenburg, a historian at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Mr. Leuchtenburg notes that beginning with Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the century, the United States had a series of chief executives who profoundly affected the relationship of the federal government with the nation. From T.R.'s trustbusting, through Franklin Delano Roosevelt's huge expansion of the government, and Truman's and Eisenhower's embrace of internationalism, chief executives bestrode Washington like colossi.

Now they appear on "Oprah." Democrat Gore has pledged not to add to the federal payroll. Republican Bush would bolster the Department of Education.

"Both work within the mainstream of America," says Michael Birkner, an historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

The decline of regionalism may have accelerated this slide to the center. For instance, today the South is simply less different than the North - or at least, less different than it used to be.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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