WASHINGTON — The demise of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s presidential campaign, like that of Gary Hart before him, illustrates a basic fact about U.S. politics. The system has been transformed over the past 20 years. It has been transformed by changes in the rules and by changes in technology. We are just beginning to grasp the consequences.
For Biden, of course, the changes became dramatically clear last week. He suffered the consequences of the videotape revolution. Speeches given by Biden and speeches given by others could be juxtaposed to see if there were any suspicious similarities. When Biden misrepresented his academic record at a private meeting of New Hampshire voters, C-SPAN cameras were there to record it. As many commentators pointed out, Biden is not the first candidate to borrow the words of others or to exaggerate his credentials. But he is perhaps the first to be caught on videotape.
We are also beginning to learn some of the larger consequences of making the system more open and visible. For one thing, the press has become a key player. That raises issues of privacy and responsibility. Moreover, political parties no longer control the nominating process. We now select candidates by means of a trial by ordeal in which personal qualities take on enormous significance. Finally, both parties have become more uniform. In contests where issue differences are small, personal considerations loom large.
At his Sept. 17 press conference, Biden acknowledged that he had been intellectually sloppy and had done stupid things. He claimed that these were honest but dumb mistakes--failures of intelligence, not character.
The problem is that given the system we now have and the environment of the 1988 contest, Biden's "dumb mistakes" were sufficient to doom his campaign. Like all but one of the other Democratic candidates, Biden was not well known. He was from a small state and had no national reputation or constituency. As a result, people had to judge him on the basis of a first impression. And the first impression was not good. A poll taken early last week, just before Biden's withdrawal, showed the candidate viewed favorably by 3% and unfavorably by 16%.
Jesse Jackson is the one Democrat in the race with a national following, and his experience in 1984 shows how important that is. When Jackson got in trouble over anti-Semitic remarks, he had a base of supporters willing to stand by him. The same thing happened to Ronald Reagan last year when he was caught selling arms to Iran. Neither Biden nor Hart had that kind of base. Nor, for that matter, do any of the other candidates except Jackson, which is why the Biden and Hart experiences have made them all nervous.
We also have a situation this year where the voters can't differentiate the candidates in terms of issues. All the Democrats are saying basically the same things about Central America, arms control, taxes and the deficit. Even on foreign trade, the one issue where there has been some semblance of debate, similarities are more striking than differences. In fact, there are more issue differences on the Republican than the Democratic side. No sooner was a pending U.S.-Soviet arms-control agreement announced than GOP candidates fell to squabbling over it.
With no sharp ideological confrontations, personal factors like judgment, character, experience and intelligence take on unusual importance. How else can you tell the difference between, say, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.)?
The parties have become more ideologically consistent because of a fundamental change in the political process dating back 20 years. The immediate cause was the bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention. The delegates nominated Hubert H. Humphrey, even though primary voters had gone for Eugene J. McCarthy. As a result, we reformed the political process. We took power from the party bosses and gave it to the people. Henceforth, the decision of the primary voters and caucus participants would be sovereign.
The problem is that most people do not bother to participate in primaries and caucuses. The ones who do tend to be motivated by ideology or special interests. We have ended up with a process that is elitist in a different way. Issue activists and interest groups have replaced bosses and machines. They still enforce a party orthodoxy, however--liberal for the Democrats, conservative for the GOP.
Opening up the process has resulted in another change: It has made the press a player. Under Old Politics rules, candidates were screened by party leaders. Remember the smoke-filled room? That's where party leaders asked prospective candidates, "Is there anything in your moral, medical, legal or financial background we ought to know about?"