This may be remembered as the week when America woke up to politics and decided the year 2000 promises a real election involving decent candidates.
Say what you will about Texas Gov. George W. Bush's vagueness on some key issues: His campaign kickoff was a success, because he made it clear he'll redefine the Republican Party. If compassion and inclusion are his talismans, education his centerpiece and national unity his promise, we may say a final, welcome goodbye to the wedge issues that have divided Americans by race, ethnicity and religious conviction.
But the true surprise of the week should not have been a surprise: Vice President Al Gore showed he'll make a race of it. Helped by the abysmal reviews he's gotten for years, Gore confounded expectations in his announcement speech in Carthage, Tenn., on Wednesday. He laid out a plausible case with energy and even a bit of eloquence. If Gore was no Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, neither was he -- well, the Al Gore everyone expected.
Bush and Gore are both right in seeing the coming battle as a big election. It occurs after first the Democrats and now at least the Bush Republicans have realized that an older political era has passed away.
You know something has happened when Policy Review, the magazine of the devoutly ideological and conservative Heritage Foundation, runs an article proclaiming the end of ideology as it does in its current issue.
"American voters are now largely unwilling to make political decisions based on liberal or conservative ideology," writes David Winston, a political consultant and former aide to Newt Gingrich. "More often than not, they regard attempts to make them view the world in ideological terms as too constricting.
"Politics will never be the same again," Winston declares, "and politicians who miss this change are apt to be left behind, scratching their heads as the masters of this new politics emerge victorious at the polls."
Progressives have been playing down ideology for years (partly by eschewing the word "liberal") on the theory that their programs were more popular than their philosophy. Now many conservatives know their ideology has hit a wall too.
No one understands this better than top Bush strategist Karl Rove. In an interview earlier this year, Rove argued this election will be like that of 1896, when William McKinley created a new Republican majority. McKinley realized that the issues surrounding the Civil War were no longer relevant three decades later. He changed the Republican message, appealed to new voter groups, Rove says, and launched a new Republican era.
Thus George W.'s "compassionate conservatism." In politics, always watch the adjective. When Clinton called himself a New Democrat, he was separating himself from past Democratic mistakes. Bush is using the word "compassionate" to separate himself from the mistakes of the Republican Congress.
Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council and the top evangelist for the New Democrats' moderation, argues that Bush, ironically, is running as a New Democrat by embracing a legitimate role for government. After years of GOP accusations that Clinton stole Republican ideas, Bush will find himself accused of swiping Clinton's. As Clinton showed, political larceny can be quite effective.
This insight is shared by Bob Borosage, a leader of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal group that usually tangles with From's side of the party. Borosage argues that if Bush tries to occupy the political space Clinton held, Gore (or, if he wins the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley) must push the debate forward with new ideas on economic injustice and structure of the new economy.
The strategy -- which, by the way, From agrees with in principle -- is to force Bush to take a stand on new issues, challenge his credentials as a compassionate problem-solver and cast him as a throwback to an older status quo.
That's exactly what Gore did in his announcement speech. He took credit for the economic achievements of the Clinton years and declared, "I don't ever want to go back." But he also touted new initiatives (universal pre-school and after-school programs, and proposals on health care, guns, sprawl and family leave) that stood in contrast to what Gore called "the crumbs of compassion."
There are 16 months and two serious nomination battles between now and Election Day. Karl Rove may or may not strategize Bush to victory. But after this week, his claim that the 2000 election will be historic looks stronger than ever.