An Englishwoman in Washington: Politicians without politics
Barely six months ago, the suggestion that Bill Bradley could make a serious challenge to Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination would have been a joke. For those who have yet to encounter the former New Jersey senator, his soporific style makes the stiff vice-president look exciting and charismatic. And yet Gore, under pressure from Bradley, now describes himself as the underdog in the race. Stranger still is the fact that one of the issues that Bradley has used to his political advantage is the previously obscure matter of campaign finance reform.
It says much about the millennial presidential race that campaign finance reform has become a key issue for both Democrat and Republican hopefuls seeking nomination. While most of the candidates have found it hard to say anything coherent on the issues of the day - be it the war in Kosovo, federal spending priorities or the recent decision of the Kansas school board to drop the teaching of evolution from the curriculum - most have devised elaborate schemes to change the rules on financing future presidential campaigns. Two serious contenders - Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain - are so taken by the issue that they have made it the central flank of their manifestos.
It is hard to understand how anybody, apart perhaps from professional fundraisers, could get excited about campaign finance. Yet throughout the autumn, all 'right-thinking' people in Washington have declared themselves in favour of the reform of electoral financing. The accepted wisdom is that political donations corrupt the democratic process and somebody has to end them. 'Soft money' - a donation from a union or corporation that funds campaigns around single issues without explicitly endorsing any candidate - is deemed to be particularly dangerous. Both Democrat and Republican frontrunners Al Gore and George W Bush now campaign for the banning of 'soft money'. In future only individual voters should fund presidential election campaigns and, according to both Gore and Bush, even their contributions should be limited.
In 1996 an estimated $4 billion was spent on campaigns for all elections from city council to president, and a lack of money is a serious barrier to anybody wishing to enter an electoral contest. Today's concern over the dangers of political donations, however, is not motivated by old-fashioned ideas about levelling the playing field. Rather, the candidates want to dissociate themselves from political donations because in the year 2000 presidential race they all sense the need to distance themselves from politics itself.
It has become fashionable to denounce the tobacco industry or gun manufacturers for the vast sums they pour into political advertising. Bill Bradley says it is time to take 'special interests out of American politics'. Al Gore too calls for 'eliminating the influence of special interests'. Republican John McCain argues that these kind of contributions 'corrupt our political ideals'. George W Bush, meanwhile, boasts that he is the first candidate to provide a daily disclosure of contributors to his own campaign on the internet. But beneath the rhetoric, taking special interests out of politics is really an argument for rejecting the political process itself. What is politics if not the clash of ideas between different groups of people who have particular interests? If people are prevented from fighting for their interests, by financing campaigns, then politics becomes meaningless. When the debate about campaign finance is seen in these terms, it becomes clear why it has become such a hot issue at the hustings.
The rejection of all things political is about the only theme to have emerged out of the presidential contest to date. Anybody expressing a strong political view - as the Republicans tried to do during Clinton's impeachment trial - will be punished at the polls. As a result every candidate is going out of their way to be the most apolitical name on the ballot paper.
Old-style political leadership is definitely out. No presidential hopeful dares to presume to know the solutions to the nation's problems. Rather he (or she) seeks office in order to 'learn from the people'. In the summer, almost every candidate embarked on a 'listening tour'. Sensible Republican candidates have chosen to ditch the old GOP stance on abortion and gun control lest such principles stand in the way of voters at the ballot box. George W Bush has taken this approach one step further, to the point where he seems to be running against his own party in Congress. Every time Republican senators or representatives make a principled right-wing stand, on, say, tax reform, Governor Bush denounces them.
This presidential campaign has also seen the emergence of a new breed of non-political politicians. Few Republican contenders have ever held political office and none sees this as a problem. Elizabeth Dole boasts that her lack of political experience makes her an ideal candidate for president, as she is untainted by past political involvement. Now this trend is spreading. Hollywood actors Cybill Shepherd and Warren Beatty have let it be known that they too may join the race.
Even vice-president Al Gore is desperately trying to present himself as a regular guy. As the Washington-born son of a senator and the consummate Washington insider, this is a hard act to pull off. But Gore is giving it his best shot. He has dropped the line about inventing the internet and recently declared that he wants to get away from the 'inside-the-Beltway' mentality. After sacking many on his campaign staff, he moved his campaign HQ to Nashville to be nearer the people. He has also taken to wearing knitted shirts and cowboy boots, but it is hard to imagine many voters being fooled by his disguise.
The presidential contest is still a year away but already it is clear that the turn away from old-style politics offers nothing to voters. The politics of 'disinterest' may sound like a radical departure from the corrupt money-centred politics of the past. But by outlawing the political participation of all those with an axe to grind, it promises to make US politics more elitist than ever before.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999