We are slouching toward two of the most inconsequential political conventions in American history, followed by the more riveting prospects of a World Series, the Olympics, the TV networks' fall premieres, Alan Greenspan's attempt at a soft landing, a bruising Senate battle in New York guaranteed to captivate America's Hillary-haters and Hillary-lovers, and then an election in which probably fewer than the record-low 49 percent of eligible voters who participated in 1996 will dutifully decide on the next president.
America is in an era of great social rest, the summer of our content; smugness has settled over the land like thick yellow smog, and national politics has descended from contempt to tedium. The general election has already dragged on for four long months, and there are four more to go. No one cares except a handful of political junkies.
The front-loaded primaries have given both George W. and Al Gore immense amounts of time to reposition themselves in the political dead center, where they can aim tiny darts at each other at short range. Their positions on education, Social Security, foreign policy, and fiscal policy are hardly identical, but neither are they so distinct that the public has a clear idea of what may be at stake in choosing between these two men.
Prosperity has dulled the senses of people who used to pay attention to such things, while the other half who are poor or working class and lack college degrees--who have gotten very little out of this prolonged expansion, whose kids attend lousy schools, who can't afford good health care and are over their heads in debt--stopped paying much attention months ago and don't trust a single word that emerges from politicians' larynxes.
The Washington press corps is at their wits' end. There is nothing to report except small tactical maneuvers within the campaigns, the latest fundraising excesses, and warmed-over rumors of possible running mates--mostly pleasant, dull men like Tom Ridge and Evan Bayh, and stolid perennial Colin Powell as secretary of state on the Bush ticket.
The 1996 conventions marked what many took to be new lows in national significance. The networks hardly covered them save for the prime-time stage shows featuring the likes of Christopher Reeve calling for more research on spinal cord injuries. The single unscripted event occurred at the Democratic convention, when Dick Morris's revealed obsession with the toes of a Washington prostitute caused him to abruptly resign as Clinton's scriptwriter in chief, diverting everyone's attention to Morris on the very day that his script called for attention to be focused solely on the president's arrival in Chicago to claim the nomination.
But it looks as though the 2000 conventions will have even less redeeming value, except for the fattest-cat contributors who will be watching from the skyboxes, sipping wine, and exchanging business cards. The scripts are already written, and we have already heard them. The spectacle of thousands of Republicans gathering in Philadelphia for five days in August will cause the nation to lapse into a near-comatose state, the ideal condition for coping with the Democrats in Los Angeles two weeks later. Our only hope for surviving these two nonevents is a good laugh. (Apropos, Comedy Central has asked me to cover the conventions, joining the likes of Bob Dole. Barring an invitation from Al Gore to be his running mate, I plan to be there with CC.)
Scholars of American political history will one day look back upon the summer of 2000 as the oddest of times. The world's last remaining superpower, unrivaled in influence and armament, has no comprehensible foreign policy or even a broad philosophy for leading the world, and none is being debated. The world's richest nation ever also has the widest inequality of income and wealth of any advanced country--wider than it has experienced in more than a century--but no strategy for how to reduce it, and none is being discussed. The world's biggest polluter at a time when the unnatural warming of the globe is finally accepted as a scientific reality has no clear policy for reversing the damage and is not even debating the issue. Candidates pander to old citizens by promising costly prescription drug benefits but ignore a large and growing population of impoverished children. Their campaigns have become little more than vast slush pumps sucking in money from wealthy individuals and interest groups with promises of perks and favorable treatment, poisoning our democracy and spreading cynicism, yet genuine campaign finance reform is nowhere in sight, and the candidates have stopped discussing it.
True leadership is the art of getting people to pay attention to things they should be attending to but would rather not. At their best, presidential campaigns can generate mandates for reform. They can be occasions for raising public awareness. But so far, the presidential candidates this time around have been exercising the exact opposite of leadership. They've been practicing pandership. Never before have we as a nation had so much capacity to do large and important things, yet so little discussion about getting large and important things done. Were this not a tragedy in the making, it would be a fitting subject for Comedy Central. ¤