On the day last month when Vice President Gore formally announced his presidential campaign, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson gave reporters a tour of what he called the real Gore homestead: the penthouse suite of a luxury Washington hotel.
Nicholson's stunt was clever. It was also outdated--better suited to an era of politics that is receding rapidly into the past. In 2000, Gore should not have to worry much about disguising his establishment credentials and upbringing; neither should Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who probably enjoys pork rinds no more than his father did.
Both these front-runners are superbly well-positioned to benefit from one of the realities of Clinton-era politics: the triumph of the elites.
The messiness of Bill Clinton's personal life, and the anger he elicits from opponents, have helped obscure one of his principal legacies: He closed a three-decade chapter during which populism--fueled by the grievances of average citizens toward establishment institutions and establishment values--was a dominant force in American politics.
Since the late 1960s, nearly all important political movements have drawn their power from this source. Liberals succeeded in mobilizing voters in a wave of populist grievance against the establishment's prosecution of the Vietnam War. But most populist causes were distinctly conservative in origin: anger at courts for promoting racial preferences and inventing a right to abortion; anger at politicians for high taxes and lenient crime and welfare policies.
The early machinations of 2000 politics highlight vividly how these movements have been drained of energy during the Clinton years. Polls show the tax-cutting issue spinning with none of its old traction, to the frustration of many GOP lawmakers. Tolerance, meanwhile, has replaced grievance as the new ethos of national politics--as shown by the efforts of presidential candidates like Bush and Elizabeth Dole to mute traditional Republican opposition to abortion rights and affirmative action.
And look what happened to the most recent populist sensation to roil national politics: term limits. Many of the throw-the-bums-out candidates elected to Congress on three-term pledges in 1994 are now busy concocting rationales for sticking around after all.
Populism has been dethroned by a directly opposite phenomenon: a rough national consensus that the people who are running America, in the national government and in other public institutions, may actually be doing an acceptable job.
Who are the elites of the Clinton era? In the most literal sense, they are the collection of investment bankers, moderately progressive policy experts and political consultants who run this administration day to day. More broadly, they are the community of liberal special-interest advocates, lawyers and foreign policy interventionists whose political values--based on the premise that an educated cadre of experts generally knows what's best for the country--have gained primacy in national life in recent years.
There is irony here. Clinton first ran for president with a campaign that saw itself as a populist cause. His advisers dressed in denim. His mission was to evict a president allegedly oblivious to the concerns of ordinary voters. Yet after six and a half years in office, the Man from Hope (who was also the Man from Yale Law School) has made American politics safe for Volvo drivers and pointy heads of all stripes.
No sensible politician, of course, would choose to present himself or herself to voters next year as the candidate of the elite. But plenty of these politicians are supporting--or at least trying to reconcile their views with--the elite premises that are shaping this year's politics. That's because many of these premises now have clear majority support. Just look at two issues that have dominated Washington's agenda since the end of Clinton's impeachment trial in February: gun control and Kosovo.
Gun control and foreign interventionism are both elite enthusiasms of long-standing. And both ideas run against the grain of even older populist traditions. Indeed, both are capable of exciting intense antagonism among people who think elites have no business interfering with gun ownership or risking American lives and treasure abroad except when national interests are directly threatened.
Yet congressional Democrats, many of whom were punished by voters for gun-control votes in 1994, are pushing the issue anew--secure in the knowledge that it now enjoys overwhelming majority support, even in many conservative districts. Clinton's Kosovo intervention, likewise, enjoyed majority support--even though it was a humanitarian mission in a place most Americans had never heard of before.
Budget policy, the other issue that will dominate Washington's attention this year, illustrates how Clinton himself is tugged by competing populist and elitist impulses. In 1993, he famously complained to his staff that they had become virtual "Eisenhower Republicans," as he had to give up the domestic spending he wanted in order to convince Wall Street he was doing enough to lower the deficit. Six years later, he regards the elimination of that deficit as a paramount achievement.
There are several reasons for populism's rout. The most important may be the most obvious: the surging U.S. economy. So much money is being made that nearly everyone is reaping the benefits. The preoccupation of 2000 politics will be keeping the golden goose on her nest.
A vivid sign that the Age of Elites is upon us came earlier this year when Time magazine ran an idolizing cover story on the "Committee to Save the World." The supposed saviors were Alan Greenspan, the unelected Federal Reserve chairman; then-Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, a Wall Street tycoon; and his successor, Lawrence Summers, a Harvard economist.
But a soaring Dow is only one manifestation of a larger trend. Crime is down. So are most indexes of poverty. The federal government has tamed its chronic budget deficits. The U.S. military has performed with impressive competence in wars in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans.
By no means is Bill Clinton responsible for all or even most of this good news, but it is no surprise that he should be the beneficiary of it. Decades of ostentatious failures--from Vietnam to Watergate to a series of recessions--were quite naturally going to produce populist backlash. Success, on the other hand, empowers elites: The Gallup organization reports 55 percent of the country is "satisfied" with the direction of the country, compared with just 14 percent seven years ago this month.
The defeat of populism also reflects a deliberate political strategy of the Clinton White House. With actions ranging from his signing of a GOP-drafted welfare reform bill in 1996 to his consistent focus on anti-crime measures, Clinton has co-opted issues that Republicans for decades used effectively to tap populist resentment.
That strategy has been aided by a powerful tool that Clinton uses more aggressively than virtually any other politician: polling. No previous White House has integrated polling so thoroughly into the policy-making process as this one.
At first blush, obsessive polling of the public seems like the most populist politics of all. The paradox, however, is that polling can actually help defeat populist fervors by letting elites know precisely how to accommodate them in the most surgical way possible. Clinton's careful positioning on affirmative action--"mend it, don't end it"--is one example.
Tax cuts are another. No doubt Clinton the Wonk would prefer that the government keep all the money it can. Clinton the Politician, however, knows acutely the dangers of ignoring the popularity of tax cuts. In 1996, he and then-consultant Dick Morris used polling to create a strategy of targeted tax deductions and credits, used to subsidize education and other favored goals. Genuine tax-cut proponents correctly identify the elitist premise of this approach: Why should the government be directing the ways you can spend your own money? To their frustration, however, these critics have seen Clinton's maneuvering deplete the tax issue of its potency.
In an odd way, even Clinton's sex scandal ended up as a ratification of elite values. For decades, going back to FDR's time, it had been a populist theme that the people running Washington were secretly libertines and hypocrites. Then last year came proof that at least some of those suspicions were true. The public responded, not with populist moralism, but with cosmopolitan tolerance about weaknesses of the flesh.
Polls suggest that many people, exhausted by seven years of the Clinton psychodrama, are ready to see him go. But the anti-populist brand of politics he represents stays behind. If Gore and Bush retain their front-runner status, next year's presidential race will feature two charmed children of the establishment, however much they drape themselves in down-home airs. (That statement would be equally true of Bill Bradley and Elizabeth Dole.)
Gore, who graduated from Harvard in 1969 and is the son of a senator, hopes to be nominated in an unusually orderly process as the chosen candidate of his party's elite. Bush, who graduated from Yale in 1968 and is the son of a president, hopes to be nominated in an unusually orderly process as the chosen candidate of his party's elite. Gore preaches centrism and tolerance. Bush preaches centrism and compassion. If Gore gets elected, he will no doubt surround himself with moderately liberal veterans of Washington's policy establishment who will try above all not to let prosperity wane. If Bush gets elected, he will surround himself with moderately conservative veterans of Washington's policy establishment who will try above all not to let prosperity wane.
Either way, the era of pork-rind politics is over.
John Harris covers the White House for The Washington Post.