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At Finish, Candidates Resist Hewing to the Center Line

Race: Despite forays toward the future, Bush and Gore lean on traditional party debate. Americans are as closely divided as at any time in the last 100 years.


WASHINGTON — Al Gore and George W. Bush arrive at the finish line today in a presidential race that began by promising to reconfigure the historic lines of debate between the two parties, but has ended mostly by reconfirming them.

Though Bush on many issues has sought to move the Republican Party toward the center, he has spent the last several weeks mostly denouncing Gore as a servant of big government--the argument GOP nominees have wielded against Democrats without pause since the New Deal.

Bush's task has been made easier because Gore has also reverted to old arguments: tilting leftward after Bill Clinton's efforts to moderate the Democrats' image, Gore has relied much more than the president on strident economic populism and promises of new government spending.

The result is that the campaign has oscillated between the old and the new, sometimes on the same day.

Messages Converge on Some Points

On the one hand, Bush's new message of "compassionate conservatism" and Gore's "New Democratic" message have converged on some intriguing points--with both, for instance, urging greater competition for public schools and more reliance on states and religiously based charities to deliver social services.

On the other, the two candidates have revived old disputes about the role of government and the balance between taxes and spending that could have been lifted from any campaign over the last half-century.

"It's the rhetoric of 1976 or 1960 almost," says Bill Kristol, publisher of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. "In that respect, I don't think it tells us about the politics of the next decade. This is the last campaign of the 20th century, not the first campaign of the 21st."

Above all, the campaign has demonstrated that both parties face the challenge of constantly recalibrating their agendas in search of a winning coalition. In fact, the real story tonight, no matter which side wins the presidency and controls Congress, may be that the country is as closely divided between the two parties as at any point in the last 100 years.

"I don't think there is a majority party in America right now--that's what you are seeing in this election," says Tom Cole, the chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. "One of these individuals will win and how they govern will affect whether they can create a majority, or whether they open a floodgate for the other side down the road."

Both Bush and Gore have put their own distinctive imprints on their parties' messages, though they have moved in opposite directions.

Gore hasn't decisively broken with Clinton's New Democratic agenda. But in several subtle respects, the vice president has tilted the Democratic Party back toward the message and priorities that predated the president.

In his campaign, Gore has defended all of Clinton's signature New Democratic reforms--such as balancing the budget, paying down the national debt, reducing the size of the federal work force and imposing time limits on welfare recipients.

But, strikingly, Gore hasn't proposed any comparably ambitious government reform projects of his own. His message has been more that he would consolidate the administration's reforms rather than extend them--as demonstrated by his pledge to freeze the size of the federal work force rather than reduce it, as the administration has. Even where Gore has proposed more ambitious reform plans, he has almost never mentioned them.

Instead, Gore's appeal all year has focused much more on protecting and expanding government programs.

Down one track, he has emphasized his opposition to virtually any changes meant to reduce the costs or fundamentally change the structure of Social Security and Medicare. Down the other, he has stressed his plans to increase spending on education, health care and, above all, prescription drugs for the elderly under Medicare.

"The theory of the Gore campaign is that Clintonism served some good purposes; it helped get the albatross of cultural liberalism off the Democratic shoulders [and] it helped convince the country we could manage the economy responsibly," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank that helped develop Clinton's agenda. "But having done that work, we can now return to a policy of expanding government in the name of working-class populism."

That populist rhetoric represents a second large departure from Clinton. While Clinton, especially in 1996, emphasized bipartisanship and promised ideas that reached "beyond the brain-dead politics in both parties," Gore has used much more traditionally liberal populist language.

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