Michael J. Ring
The election of 2000 is fast approaching, and potential presidential candidates are now deciding whether to make a run for the White House or pass on the race.
While there are still several months left in this exploratory phase of the campaign, it appears nearly certain that the president who will lead the United States into the third American century will be unspectacular and unremarkable for any positive achievements.
The ranks of Democrats seeking the nomination grow leaner by the day. Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey has decided not to run for president, and Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone has also chosen not to enter the fray. Their departure leaves a thin field contesting the Democratic nomination, a group headed by Vice President Al Gore and including former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, and possibly Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, House minority leader Richard Gephardt, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
These potential candidates are a terribly sorry cast. Gore has joined in this Administration's destruction of traditional Democratic values. Gephardt is unimaginative and lacks a true national vision so vital to the office of the presidency. Bradley and Kerry are second-string players. Jackson at times is immature and distinctly unpresidential, and would be a horrible choice for the nomination.
There was a potential candidate in the field whose candidacy had the potential to excite the nation. Wellstone is a charismatic, populist senator with a strong progressive vision for the nation. He practices people-based politics and places his constituents' interests before special interests. His absence from this campaign leaves a gigantic void which cannot be filled.
The potential Republican nominees are just as unappealing as their Democratic counterparts. The likely Republican ballot in the year 2000 will contain many recycled names, including the son of a president, the wife of a presidential candidate, and several also-rans from the 1996 campaign, as well as a group of rightist loons fighting to determine whose "family values" are the scariest.
Only one Republican currently considering a run for the Oval Office can present a strong, principled vision for the 21st century. Arizona Senator John McCain has led the fights in Congress over tobacco regulation and campaign-finance reform. Like Wellstone, McCain is an honest senator with populist appeal. A vote for McCain is a vote well cast.
Unfortunately, the chances of his winning the nomination are very slim. George W. Bush has already lined up much of the party structure behind his candidacy and will likely build one of the largest campaign war chests. It will take a miracle for McCain to win; America's choice in 2000 will probably be Bush-Gore. A more uninspiring, unpalatable choice in presidential politics would be difficult to find.
There was once a time when presidents were great men. They were sources of intellect and wisdom; of charisma and inspiration. They were worthy leaders of the great American people.
I consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be our greatest president. Certainly he faced more challenges than any president; he grappled with the Great Depression and World War II. During his presidency he signed many of our fair labor laws, laws which have been critical to extending prosperity to the working people of this nation.
But his greatest contribution is one that cannot be measured by statistics; it is the hope and optimism he gave to the American people. He assured Americans that the nation would prevail through its darkest hours, and his steady leadership earned the belief and trust of the American people.
Another one of our great American presidents, Harry S. Truman, left a legacy of charisma and character any future president would be wise to study. Like Roosevelt, Truman's great gift to the nation was something intangible, something that could not be measured in terms of numbers or laws. Truman's contribution to America was his plain-spoken honesty. Truman did not try to hide decisions or policies from the American people, nor trick or deceive them. Instead he was brutally honest with the people he led, a quality for which he was rewarded, to the surprise of the pundits, at the polls.
Today, candidates worthy of these men's legacies flounder in the primaries. Mediocre candidates who pander to our wishes and needs, making promises they cannot keep, win our elections. When they fail to deliver on their promises in office, they produce not hope and optimism but cynicism and skepticism in the American political psyche.
Just look at the man who today is slithering in the shadow of great men like Roosevelt and Truman. Ever since entering into office, the administration of Bill Clinton has been rocked by scandal after scandal: Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Monica Lewinsky, Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate. Regardless of whether one believes Bill Clinton has committed impeachable offenses, it cannot be denied that Bill Clinton has marred and devalued the office of the presidency.
Although Clinton's poll ratings may be high (for the moment), those ratings belie what people really feel about this man. The endless parade of scandals in this administration has fed the cynicism with which Americans regard government. Bill Clinton seems more in place in Hustler magazine than in the annals of American history. Americans know this sorry man cannot hold a candle to the leadership provided by Roosevelt, or Truman, or Jefferson, or Washington. That 70 percent of the nation would approve of this man's job performance is testament to the lowered expectations Americans hold for the presidency.
This is not to say there are not good people in politics. Indeed some politicians hold honor and valor as indispensible values. Senators McCain and Wellstone are good examples. But neither of them will be president; neither of them will become the most powerful man in the free world. Their qualities which we, the American voters, should hold in the highest esteem instead sentence them to their positions as congressional backbenchers.
What hath wrought this terrible plague on American society? Is it the corrupting influence of money? Is it that the monied interests prefer a yes man to an honest leader?
Or is it the American people who are at fault here? Are we as a society so juvenile that we have to be placated by our leaders with what we want to hear; are we so spineless that we are afraid to be told that taxes will have to go up or entitlements down?
If the former of the baneful influences, the corrupting power of money, is the only problem, then I have an easy solution. Campaign finance laws such as McCain-Feingold should remedy the situation.
But if the problem is our unwillingness to be told the truth, to have a leader who will make difficult national choices, then the solution is much more difficult to attain. Only a searching of our conscience as we follow politics and vote will cure the disease. As we approach the third American century, now is a good time to start. Shame on us if we elect another pandering president mired in scandal. Shame on us if we elect another Bill Clinton.