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A Primary Primer

Eric J. Plosky

So the New Hampshire primary has come and gone, and, unsurprisingly, few at MIT know or care about the results. The process of electing the nation’s next president curries little interest, apparently, among our rarefied tech elite, who are far more captivated by the IPO market. Actually, I shouldn’t be too harsh; the rest of the country is in pretty much the same boat of uninterest, except that Middle America’s eyeballs are instead glued to the WWF.

Swell. And then people wonder why politics is dominated by special interests.

Sure, the national consciousness has swapped a couple of definitions lately -- the Man, though he still wears dark suits and spectacles, no longer represents corporate America, but the good old U.S. government. The feds are seen as devious, calculating, and sinister; similar characteristics of corporations have been successfully obscured in recent years by a massive green swirl of bills.

Despite this realignment of American affections, however, our elected officials still control the levers of power. Fewer and fewer people seem to notice, but government remains in charge of such unglamorous matters as war, taxes, policing, transportation, and health. What the president says in his State of the Union address may not be as compelling as news of the latest dot com, but it’s probably far more important.

And, therefore, so is the presidential election. In order that the reader might be brought rapidly up to speed on what’s been happening, here’s a super-condensed report from Campaign 2000.

On the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore is trying to beat back a credible challenge from ex-senator and NBA star Bill Bradley, who drew nearly even with Al in the Granite State. The two Dems differ mostly in terms of personality. Gore, whatever his attempts at hipness, is a thoroughly conventional wooden soldier who sounds embarrassingly ridiculous when he tries to yell triumphantly. Bradley is “your favorite teacher,” according to a New Hampshire campaign poster; he’s thoughtful -- nearly lofty -- and running for president on the socially responsible intellectual platform.

Bradley is unencumbered by the accident-prone Clinton administration; Gore is its unwilling champion, thanks to the booming economy. Both have their own health-care plans and each seems to delight in attacking the other’s, even though the respective campaigns’ cost calculations would make any ordinary Joe’s eyes glaze over.

Whether Bradley will win the Democratic nomination depends on voters’ appraisal of the Bill currently in the White House. Gore is not a candidate in his own right as much as he is a pseudo-Clinton -- capable of continuing political business as usual, minus the scandals, minus the magnetism. Registered Democrats at the upper end of the income-education spectrum have so far not been sold on this combination and have gone for Bradley. Time -- more campaigning -- will tell if Gore will ultimately be more convincing.

Democrats are particularly concerned about the salability of their eventual nominee because the Republican candidates have so far garnered much more of the national media spotlight. Heir-apparent George W. Bush, governor of Texas and son of the pre-Clinton president, was rolling in dollars and endorsements early on, only to have the rug snatched from under him in New Hampshire by feisty Arizona Senator John McCain, a maverick ex-P.O.W. with not-conventionally-Republican ideas. Bush hasn’t said much besides “compassionate conservatism”; McCain, the GOP star of the moment, has truculently refused party orthodoxy, calling for campaign finance reform, using the budget surplus to finance Social Security and the national debt, and a small -- not Reagan-style -- tax cut.

Bush is increasingly perceived as a pampered prince; voters cared not about his adolescent boozing and drugging, nor about his failure of a foreign-policy pop quiz, but are now beginning to question whether he deserves votes simply on the inevitability factor. Until McCain’s raucous talk attracted attention, Bush’s nomination -- even election -- seemed set. Now, nobody is sure. Bush has to get serious, has to talk details; McCain must dig in for the long fight, trading flamboyance for palatability.

There are other Republican hopefuls, none of whom stand a chance. Animatronic Steve Forbes is stuck in 1996, the year he should have discovered that a huge personal fortune does not make up for a complete, unblinking lack of charisma. Alan Keyes is a master orator who hasn’t yet figured out that even a silver tongue can’t sell a hate-filled ideology of homophobia, xenophobia, gun profusion, and isolation. Gary Bauer is even further out right, as demonstrated by his Brylcreemed hair. And on the fringes skulk Reform Party eccentrics Donald Trump and Patrick Buchanan.

Though talking heads have been saying this for months, the campaign season has really just begun -- the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary is always when everybody starts to get serious. Now is the time to acquire a rudimentary understanding of what’s going on, to figure out who will get your vote. Check <> to familiarize yourself with the candidates and their views, and get ready to vote for the next president. Whether or not the next four years are good for the country depends on who’ll live in the White House -- and we’ve got the keys.