IT'S THE END of July, but it's long past time to get a few things straight about November's election. The media, with little to write about until the upcoming riots in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, are picking at the scabs of election-year politics— I mean, really, does anyone seriously think Hillary Clinton is anti-Semitic or that the vice presidential pick will make much difference? Let's settle some of these nonissues right now.
First, the Reform Party. Look, Ross Perot had a great idea that tapped into populist angst: Our government is selling us out, whether it be on trade or failing to talk straight about spending and taxes. The message resonated with middle-brow voters who felt their quality of life was slipping. Unfortunately for Ross, Bill Clinton was on to a similar message and emphasized boosting the economy (stupid) to raise the standard of living for the "forgotten middle class." By the time NAFTA rolled around, most people were on board the free-trade bandwagon, and Perot looked like a racist-retro goof debating Al Gore about giant sucking sounds and the danger of foreigners. The Perot middle has now migrated elsewhere: to the right, the left, and to Jupiter. Perot proved himself a paranoid loon, and the Reform Party's most famous poster-boy, Governor Jesse Ventura, has smartly bolted and now holds court as the last true independent, courted by all. His celebrity is all the party he needs.
The Reform Party's bones are being picked over by other third-party scavenger species. John Hagelin, who is challenging Pat Buchanan for the presidential nomination, is already the nominee of the Natural Law Party, a.k.a. TM's political front; Buchanan's erstwhile Reform ally, the bizarre Lenora Fulani, is really from the cultish New Alliance Party; and Buchanan himself only adopted the Reform Party because it looked ripe for the pickin' when his own party, the GOP, said good riddance. Whoever gets the presidential nod will get federal funds, but not enough to win, only enough to be a noisy irrelevance pursing a fringe agenda. The Reform Party's promise of being a true representative of the mad-as-hell middle is gone.
ONE REASON IT'S GONE is that the anger has abated due to Clinton-era prosperity. In 1992, I had a bumper sticker pinned to my door—alongside a tabloid headline about "Bill's Clinton's sexy romp with Little Rock hooker!"—that said "Republicans for Clinton." OK, not too many rock-ribbed Republicans voted for Clinton, but he won many GOP voting strongholds, like the Eastside. And Clinton has certainly governed as a moderate, Nixon-era Republican. This is partly due to his own centrist impulses and the Republican Congress that has held him in check.
More to the point, the economy has been with him—and he's managed it well, to the extent that presidents can. But prosperity has turned many of his voters into Republicans. The "forgotten middle class" is invested in Wall Street, and the get-rich tech economy has become our model of success: We'll do anything for money, as long as the payoff is big and the government stays out of the way. Gore has to energize his Democratic base, but he also has to remind many voters—especially suburbanites—that he'll make a pretty dang good Republican president, too—at least a better one than that frat boy. He may not get the cranky white men who helped Newt Gingrich capture the House in '94, but he's got a great shot at everyone else.
But now you're asking, what about the Ralph Nader vote? The press has been speculating that Nader's Green Party percentage may be a factor, and that's true—as long as it's July and the election is theoretical. But I don't think Nader's support will hold if things stay close: Disgruntled Dems will come home to Gore if people really have to face the prospect of four more Bush years and a brain trust consisting of Dick Cheney, Elizabeth Dole, and Colin Powell. Henry Kissinger as elder statesman? A supreme court with the center of power shifted to . . . Clarence Thomas? No one to veto Trent Lott's legislation?
Yes, Nader is principled and tireless; yes, he's right about corporate greed and the WTO. He's a great vote for people too alienated to, well, vote. If it looks like Gore is walking away with the election, Nader will do better, just as Perot did in the far West after the '92 election was settled in the East. If it's tight, I think potential Nader voters will sacrifice a little principle to stop a disaster. Not to mention that a little of Nader goes a long way: The more exposure he gets, the more he grates on people. I heard him speaking on an NPR call-in show recently where he debated a child as if he were a T-Rex mauling prey. Ralph: You're supposed to kiss the babies, not eat them!
(Full disclosure: OK, I personally can't forgive Nader for supporting Clinton's impeachment—and he's said he would have voted to convict. Plus, I find his political asceticism and his joyless self-righteousness tiresome. I mean, even Gandhi had a good time now and again.)
AS TO THE DEBATE over debates—how many should there be, should Buchanan and/or Nader participate, etc.—I think we all should remember that debates are not part of the official election process. Hey, the best debate offer they're considering was extended by Letterman! That said, they are entertaining in the way that auto races are: fun if there's a crash ("you're no Jack Kennedy. . . .").
So, in this summer of Gladiator, I suggest the WWF ought to organize the debates: Call it Xtreme Debating, with Jesse Ventura as ref. Each candidate, like a wrestler, gets an entourage and x amount of time to speechify at the other before going at it in the ring. And Vince McMahon gets to set the rules: perhaps Hell in a cell? Everyone knows you get a sense of a person's true character once they're in the ring: Will they use a creative hold to win or smack their opponent from behind with a folding chair?
Maybe the election could just be settled that way, too. More people would pay attention.