Here's a sure sign that the maneuvering for the presidential race of 2000 is rolling toward us at a frighteningly accelerated pace. Vice President Al Gore began a speech the other day by sharing the news that he has been traveling America "on a journey of my own" and had discovered an old country "giving way to a new one."
Ugh. Politicians don't usually experience that sort of on-demand epiphany until they have the New Hampshire primary within sight. But this year, even revelation is operating on early deadline for the politicians with their eyes on Bill Clinton's big desk.
Even if you weren't tracking airport sightings in Iowa and New Hampshire, the early activity in the next race for the White House is extraordinary. It's not so much the traffic in the first primary states that marks the quick start (although surely once-and-future Republican hopeful Lamar Alexander set some sort of record for preemptive groveling when he gave away 1,300 lobsters at a New Hampshire picnic a few weeks back).
What really defines the fast pace are the aggressive efforts to begin the debates over the parties' direction. In both parties, but especially among the Democrats, many of the arguments that could dominate the airwaves a mere 30 months from now already are being road-tested.
Partly, this accelerated pace is explained by nothing more mysterious than the alluring prospect of an open-seat election, which always inspires early activity. This time there's an added incentive: the sense that the tumultuous events of the past few years--particularly the balanced budget deal and Clinton's effort to moderate the Democrats--have blunted some of the parties' most familiar arguments. Both parties now confront the most insistent question in politics: What's next?
Somewhat surprisingly, this debate is further advanced in the Democratic Party. With its balance of government reform and activism, Clinton's "third way" centrism proved in 1996 that it could build a winning national coalition. But his critics already are urging the party to change course.
From the hair-shirt center, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, the troubadour of entitlement reform, may be auditioning for a tough-choices campaign reminiscent of Paul E. Tsongas in 1992. From the left, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone is eyeing a protest candidacy aimed at illuminating the plight of the poor. And just this side of Wellstone, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) is pushing a blue-collar populism built on hostility to free trade and a switch in priorities from deficit reduction to public investment.
But in opposing the balanced budget deal, Gephardt placed himself on the opposite side of even liberal lions like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass). Even at this early point, Gephardt risks narrowing his appeal to the point where only a serious recession could make his candidacy viable.
In this crosswind, Gore inevitably is portraying himself as the candidate of continuity with Clinton--and the good times of the late 1990s. Jabbing simultaneously at Gephardt and the GOP, Gore says simply: "This is no time for us to . . . turn back."
But like George Bush (with his call for a "kinder and gentler America") in 1988, Gore recognizes that he has to put his own gloss on a fundamentally don't-touch-that-dial message. So far, he's pushed in two directions that may eventually collide. On the one hand, he's championed the "new economy" and surrounded himself with cyber-stars from the Silicon Valley; on the other, he's shown a Walter F. Mondale-like instinct for courting organized labor leaders who mostly view the new economy as a fancy label for wage cuts and companies that flee to Tijuana.
The Democratic gate that's still lacking a horse is the outsider-reformer. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley might aspire to that lane, but a sleeker entry would be a young, telegenic governor uncontaminated by the ooze in the capital. Unfortunately--and can't you hear Gore weeping?--the Democrats don't have one.
The Republican lines of division are less defined. Jack Kemp, Bob Dole's running mate, and 1996 primary hopeful Steve Forbes are betting on a bull market for more tax cuts in 2000. Both are denouncing the budget deal, and pumping the flat tax. Of the two, Forbes has been the more industrious (he's in full candidate mode) and creative--reaching out on issues such as partial birth abortion to social conservatives who spurned him in 1996. "Forbes is doing the best of anybody this year," says Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager.