The Dead Heat

The election of 2000 will go down as one of the closest and most boring in American history. The conventional Washington explanation: no big issues. Peace and prosperity lured Americans into a smug torpor. So the candidates' styles, smiles, sighs, smirks, and quirks became determinative. And by these trifling criteria, it was a toss-up. Just wait, the pundits assure us: When the stakes are higher, we'll have a real election again.

Nonsense. The closeness and dullness of this race was a consequence of how the contest was waged, and it presages future elections just as close and dull even if they occur during times of looming disaster.

Both of the major 2000 campaigns were a marvel of technological wizardry. The candidates and their handlers discovered exactly what voters thought, what they wanted to hear, and what turned them off--even down to phrases and words, style of clothing, tilt of head, use of body, intonation of voice. Focus groups, dial-o-meters, word and media labs, and bytes and bits of data were analyzed and econometricized. A mountain of money was spent on devising and airing advertisements cunningly tailored to particular groups of targeted voters in swing states. Some of this occurred in past elections, but never to such a degree, with such sophisticated tools, with such an abundance of information, backed by so much cash. The election of 2000 marked the first major encounter between the digital economy and American politics.

From the start of both campaigns more than two years ago, the objective of all this technology was clear. "Forty percent are with us, 40 against, so we need to keep our base and take as much of the middle 20 as possible," one consultant explained to me with the antiseptic certainty of an eye surgeon wielding a laser. With both sides aiming for the same goal, supported by the most sophisticated equipment imaginable, the election was destined to be a cliff-hanging snore.

Bush and Gore were the most pliable of candidates, ready and willing to try anything, say anything, do anything, wear anything that worked. Each followed directions perfectly, stayed on script, avoided risks, and experimented only within a narrow zone of safety in order to more precisely adjust the pitch, the tilt, the affect, the resonance necessary to accomplish the laserlike mission.

America is not lacking large issues--among them, the incarceration of a record-shattering two million Americans, the expanding use of capital punishment, the 20 percent of American children living in poverty, the unprecedented gap in income and wealth, the resegregation of the nation's schools, and the overwhelming dominance of money in American politics. There were no large issues in the 2000 campaign because the two major candidates and their handlers avoided them.

Bush's compassionate conservatism, conveyed with an innocent-looking smile and shrug of his shoulders, was of course different from Gore's practical idealism, expressed in stentorian tones and with sweeping movements of his arms. But because the differences were carefully calculated to achieve the same end of keeping the base intact while claiming as much of the middle as possible, the two positions and styles inevitably converged.

Gore's flirtation with populism carefully targeted the big drug companies, HMOs, and oil companies that most Americans distrust--not corporate America in general, of which most Americans approve. Bush's attacks on big government were precisely aimed at the bureaucrats, red tape, and taxes that most Americans dislike--not at the vast complexes of the Pentagon, Social Security, and Medicare that most Americans like. Bush's Social Security scheme and Gore's "Social Security plus" plan caused eyes to glaze from Jersey City to Sacramento. In the primaries, Gore condemned guns and Bush railed against abortions, but in the general election Gore avoided the mention of guns and Bush stayed well away from abortion. Both men said they were firmly behind a patients' bill of rights, prescription drugs for seniors, free trade, a stronger military, capital punishment. Bush pushed into Democratic territory by claiming the mantle of education (without uttering the word "voucher"); Gore trod onto Republican ground by promising to eliminate the national debt.

Is it any wonder we ended up with a race both remarkably close and exasperatingly dull? Will we have anything different in the future, regardless of how large the stakes or how important the issues? Combine the new digital technologies of direct marketing with endless amounts of campaign money to employ them, add the continued decline of political parties once held together by ideology or class, fold in an abundance of vacuous, spin-dried, principle-free candidates, and we're likely to have larger and longer campaigns about less and less that culminate in lifeless dead heats.

Alternatively, Americans may decide that they've had enough contrivance and insist upon real candidates who will talk about real things and challenge the nation to debate its true fate. Perhaps we have not heard the last from the likes of John McCain, Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader, and Jesse Ventura, or from another as yet unknown candidate who shucks the technology, takes risks, and tells it like it is. ¤

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