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New Economy Issues Occupy Much Smaller Place in Elections This Year

In this campaign year there's been little discussion about how the forces reconfiguring the business world--the acceleration of change, the decentralization of authority, the explosion of choices created by the Internet--should affect government and public policy.

October 23, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

EVERETT, Wash. — Maria Cantwell, the Democratic Senate candidate in Washington, made a fortune at an Internet company she joined after she was swept from the U.S. House of Representatives during the Republican landslide in 1994. If she wins her challenge against veteran Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, the 42-year-old Cantwell will be the first senator with real roots in the computer and communications revolution transforming the American workplace.

But when she met with students at a community college here last week, Cantwell portrayed herself less as a captain of the new economy than as a fellow refugee from its turmoil. Cantwell talked about her own experience of "losing a job"--when she was bounced from Congress after just one term--and being forced to "go into a whole new field" when she became a vice president at RealNetworks, the Seattle company that developed groundbreaking software to provide sound and video over the Internet.

It was a small, but telling, choice of emphasis. Cantwell's self-portrait clearly struck a chord with some of the midcareer men and women undergoing retraining themselves in the bustling computer labs at Everett Community College. But it also reflected the difficulty Cantwell has had in distilling a coherent and distinctive message from her experiences in a company at the forefront of the Information Age.

Cantwell doesn't run away from her high-tech background (which has provided her with the millions she's used to mostly self-finance her campaign). But the tech pedigree occupies a much smaller place in her presentation than this year's mantra of lunch-bucket Democratic issues--with providing prescription drugs under Medicare and regulating health maintenance organizations at the top of her list. Much like Vice President Al Gore, she talks less about wired workers who are advancing in the economy than "working families" that may feel strained or left behind. Indeed, Cantwell doesn't even like the term new economy: "Well," she says coolly, "I think a lot of people use it a lot more about me than I use it."

In this reticence, Cantwell is hardly alone. Even amid the stock market turbulence, there's little question by now that the information revolution is producing a new economy in the U.S.--one that creates new demands on workers and companies but provides enormous opportunity. Yet in this campaign year there's been little discussion about how the forces reconfiguring the business world--the acceleration of change, the decentralization of authority, the explosion of choices created by the Internet--should affect government and public policy.

This is, in many ways, an unexpected result. In the 1996 campaign, Silicon Valley seemed to have its coming out party, with industry leaders like venture capitalist John Doerr rallying support for President Clinton, and Clinton highlighting their endorsements as a symbolic stamp of approval from the future. More important, the techies organized themselves into a group called TechNet meant to provide a new economy perspective not only on narrow industry issues but broader public challenges like education and the polarization of income.

Inevitably, the new economy has become a larger source of funds for the political world: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, computer and Internet companies have contributed about $24 million to candidates and the parties in this election cycle, almost triple the level in 1996. But the industry hasn't become a larger source of ideas or insights.

That absence is most striking in Gore's campaign. Once, Gore appeared positioned to define himself as the candidate who would accelerate and spread the benefits of the information revolution; he devoted hundreds of hours after 1996 to cultivating a long list of Silicon Valley leaders, meeting so regularly with a core group led by Doerr that the sessions were dubbed Gore-Techs.

Yet as the campaign intensified, the techies receded; the Gore campaign finally announced its list of high-tech supporters last week with no more fanfare than it might have mustered for endorsements from minor-league baseball managers. Gore himself almost never talks about the new economy anymore, and instead looks mostly downscale for support.

Republican candidate George W. Bush tries to identify a bit more with the change. He ties his proposals to provide greater flexibility under Medicare and individual investment accounts in Social Security with the demand for choices at the heart of the Information Age; last week, Bush stylishly dismissed Gore's criticism of those ideas as "analog thinking in a digital age." But in the end, Bush's campaign has a retro feel too, centered on traditional GOP promises of big tax cuts and smaller government.

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