By Sean Smith Chronicle Editor

Campaign 2000

So It's Bush Versus Gore-Now What?

Election year has yet to hit full stride, say faculty

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

There are two ways of looking at Campaign 2000, the so-called first presidential election of the new millennium, say several Boston College political experts: It's either a wide-open contest with everything up for grabs and in which anything can happen.

Or it's a dud - "The NBA without Michael Jordan," quipped Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life Director Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science).

With Al Gore and George W. Bush having sewn up their parties' nominations through their overwhelming Super Tuesday primary victories, the experts say, the campaign has entered an early spring doldrums: The nominee-designates contemplate the primary results and their aftermath, while the media and voting public look ahead to a seemingly meaningless pre-convention interlude. This, and the rout of challengers Bill Bradley and John McCain, has resurrected concerns about the American political system's effectiveness.

The bigger questions will take longer to answer, say the BC observers, but there are several Campaign 2000-related developments that likely bear watching. These include the candidates' choices for running mates, their ability to mend party divisions - a particularly tough job for Bush - and the Hillary Rodham Clinton-Rudolph Giuliani Senate battle, the only non-presidential race thus far drawing national attention.

Kay Schlozman: "This really does shape up as a genuine contest."

"It's a long time until November," pointed out Prof. Kay Schlozman (Political Science). "You have two candidates with very marked divisions, who each feel they have something to prove. As much as Americans seem to be tired of the presidential campaign, and the political process in general, this really does shape up as a genuine contest."

O'Neill Professor of American Politics R. Shep Melnick agreed: "If you look at elections as a horse race, then, yes, it's disappointing that the suspense was over so early. But if we have two candidates with distinctly different points of view, then we're where we should be."

Still, experts say there are legitimate questions to be raised about a political system that all but anoints a winner before the primaries, and puts a financial and organizational burden on respected "outsiders" like Bradley and McCain to mount a challenge.

"Even Bush and Gore supporters recognize that Bradley and McCain represent the kind of people we just don't see in politics any more," Wolfe said.

Wolfe says the triumph of Bush and Gore, each with a considerable financial advantage, could well reinforce the public's perception that "America is for sale to the highest bidder" and stoke voter anger - a disaffection not fully appreciated by politicians, believes Wolfe.

Alan Wolfe: Bradley and McCain represent "the kind of people we just don't see in politics any more."

But Gore and Bush did not emerge unscathed from the primaries, the experts note. Gore showed evidence of being vulnerable on issues such as school choice and, in particular, lingering questions over his campaign finances. But the BC faculty members agree that Bush sustained greater, and potentially longer-lasting damage from his intense battle with McCain.

"Gore took some shots, but Bush never expected to have to do what he did, pulling out all the stops in the South Carolina primary," said Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science), co-author of a recent book on the presidency. "He's damaged goods. Before the summer, he's going to have to define himself in such a way that people can support him."

Even if Bush is able to mend fences with McCain and other displeased GOP factions, Landy said, he still faces an uphill battle against a standing vice president who has been part of a generally successful administration. Bush can, and probably will, attempt to capitalize on Americans' disgust over the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, "but running against Clinton won't get you the 50.1 percent vote you need."

R. Shep Melnick: "If you look at elections as a horse race, then, yes, it's disappointing."

Melnick said, "If it's a referendum on what political scientists like to call retrospective voting - 'Are you better off now than you were then?' - then Gore certainly has the advantage. If the emphasis is on character and values, that tends to be the GOP's strength."

Speculation about the candidates' running mates is likely to be fodder for Sunday morning TV roundtables or newspaper columns, but Landy cautions that few elections have turned on vice-presidential selections. Wolfe, though, thinks Bush could help himself if he were to ta p George Pataki; choosing the New York governor, described by Wolfe as the " country's most prominent Catholic politician," might alleviate criticism Bush took for appearing at Bob Jones University.

"Class tends to matter more than religion in elections," explained Wolfe, "but the Catholic vote is important - the party they vote for usually is the one that wins. And it's key in New York and in states with significant Hispanic populations like California, Texas and Florida."

New York will draw close attention anyway because of the Clinton-Giuliani race, faculty say, if only for the personalities involved, and the controversy surrounding both candidates: Giuliani is being assailed over recent police shootings in New York City, for example, while Clinton draws scrutiny for her motives and ambition, as well as her financial dealings.

The performance of the media in its campaign coverage also bears watching, faculty say. Even while "new" media like cable TV and the Internet exert greater influence, as Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication) says, the line between news and entertainment has become increasingly blurred, raising doubts about the value of the "information" being received by the public.

"There's concern about the 'dumbing-down' of news, with the emphasis going from speech to sound bite," said Herbeck, noting that the major TV networks announced they would cut back their convention coverage. "A highly-motivated person can find what they need through, say, CNN or the World Wide Web. But how many people are that motivated, and how many have access to cable or the Internet?"


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