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A Breath of Fresh (Political) Air

Michael J. Ring

The presidential primary campaign is about to intensify. The people of Iowa and New Hampshire will be voicing their preferences for the major-party nominees for President of the United States in less than a month.

Interestingly, on both sides of the aisle, the battle has, for the most part, become less about ideology and more about reform. There are some important ideological differences between Al Gore and Bill Bradley and George W. Bush and John McCain, but for many political observers, the real battles are not over shades of liberalism and conservatism but whether one’s leadership style will seek to change government or to continue the status quo.

The Democratic and Republican presidential primaries reflect essentially the same battle. A frontrunner for whom party bigshots have worked hard to smooth the path to nomination is challenged by an upstart candidate, pitching new ideas and promises of reform, and gaining momentum each day. Both Bradley and McCain currently lead polls in New Hampshire, and both of the candidates (particularly Bradley, who leads Gore in other key states) have an opportunity to snatch his party’s nomination.

Many voters are dissatisfied with both Gore and Bush, and for good reason. Neither candidate has offered anything substantial or original to the political debate, but instead merely reacted to others’ proposals.

Al Gore would make a horrendous nominee for president of the United States because he is too largely attached to the status quo. Gore seems to have caught the Clinton disease of incremental politics, and in the campaign has offered a host of small ideas without proposing a groundbreaking bill or program. His ties to the Clinton White House also hurt his credibility. Gore’s attacks on Bradley’s health care plan as too expensive are pitiful, considering the Clinton-Gore administration offered a very similar proposal when the nation was in a budget deficit. And Gore, having been involved in campaign money scandals, has no credibility on the key reform issue of campaign finance.

If the proposals Al Gore makes are properly termed incremental, then those of George W. Bush should be called microscopic. On the key Republican issue of tax reform, Bush’s proposed tax cut only confuses and convolutes further the nation’s already-complicated tax code. Otherwise his campaign has been coasting on the fumes of promises of ‘compassionate conservatism,’ a term open to wide and varied interpretations so as not to anger any bloc of voters.

The political lesson of 1999 is that the American public is sick and tired of partisanship and politics as usual. The American people rallied behind Bill Clinton when his impeachment trial turned partisan. They gave the Republican Congress low marks for failure to produce meaningful health care, gun control or campaign finance bills. Yet they clearly do not want a continuation of the Clinton presidency as manifested by his vice-president, Al Gore.

There are candidates or would-be candidates who call themselves Reform, but that party is closer to being a political insane asylum than a true engine for change. One wing of the party is dominated by an egomaniacal feather boa-wearing ex-wrestler and an egomaniacal casino magnate. The other wing does have a serious politician -- in Pat Buchanan. While his passionate condemnations of NAFTA and the WTO bring a refreshing perspective to the campaign, how much of a ‘reform’ candidate can a Beltway insider and ex-Nixon and ex-Reagan adviser like Buchanan be?

There are two true reform candidates running for president this year -- candidates who deserve your attention and consideration. They are Bill Bradley and John McCain.

Bradley and McCain are candidates who can forge bipartisan consensus and end the current cycle of degenerative politics. Their courage is especially noteworthy in the area of campaign finance reform. Both realize money is the root of all political evil; both pledge not to take soft money if they are nominated. Can you imagine Al Gore of Buddhist temple fame or George W. Bush, the $67 million man, making the same promise?

Bradley and McCain are the two candidates who have made the boldest proposals on other issues as well. For example, Bradley’s plan to give more Americans health insurance can stop a brewing crisis. McCain’s plan to end special-interest tax breaks for oil and sugar, and for ethanol companies to fund school vouchers, is an intriguing solution to America’s education woes, and one which does not rob the budget of public schools to fund vouchers. Whether you agree or disagree with their proposals, you must admire their forthrightness and courage to risk alienating certain voters by making sweeping and creative proposals.

The voters of 2000 will elect the first president to serve fully in the 21st century. The new president will set a tone for leadership in the coming years and decades. Now is not the time for uncourageous candidates with stale, trite promises and proposals. Bill Bradley and John McCain are the candidates with bold ideas and a strong impetus for reform. Each strongly deserves his party’s nomination.