Presidential campaigns lack all of brevity's many virtues, but there is one great blessing to the long slog. In their length, campaigns are exercises in clarification. They cumulatively strip away the calculated smog with which politicians and parties surround themselves. They are democracy's occasions for learning what we already knew but have been encouraged to forget.
One truth is that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are in fact different from each other. The former is liberal; the latter is conservative. A Democratic administration will reflect a liberal worldview and a Republican administration will reflect a conservative worldview. Shocking stuff, but true.
In recent months, under the pressure of both the Gore campaign and the Rodham-Clinton campaign, the Clinton White House has moved quite a distance away from the triangulated center it has more or less held since Dick Morris's post-1994 makeover. The president is a lib again, as he made abundantly clear when he took a dive in Seattle for labor, the enviros and the new loony left.
Ever since the White House staggered back from its last lurch to the left, "don't ask, don't tell" has been policy on gays in the military. Now, suddenly, the president, the vice president and the first lady have discovered what has not exactly been a secret: "Don't ask, don't tell" doesn't really work very well. They are shocked. Whose fool idea was this, anyway? True, the Clinton-Gores have a proximate cause for their reawakening: A trial in the murder of a gay soldier has brutally exposed the realities that "don't ask, don't tell" was designed to mask. But it also seems likely that, had this trial occurred at a time when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were not needful of Democratic-liberal votes, the reaction from the Clinton-Gores would have been much closer to no reaction at all.
Gore's only challenger in the Democratic presidential primaries is running unreconstructedly as a liberal. Bill Bradley proposed classically liberal health care reform and said he would, if necessary, raise taxes to pay for it. (Gore of course demagogued this statement--Gore would demagogue an opponent's "hello, how are you?"--but then grudgingly admitted to a position essentially identical to Bradley's.) On issues of race, Bradley is an unevolved 1963 liberal. In foreign policy, he seems not to have advanced his views since he was a member in good standing of the neo-isolationist left that dominated the congressional Democratic caucus during the Reagan-Bush years.
And Republicans? Well, they are, it turns out, rather to the right of the Democrats. In the debate Monday night in Iowa among the six GOP candidates, two--George W. Bush and Gary Bauer--named Jesus Christ as the most influential thinker in their lives. (Impressively, for him, Bush got the name right, the last one anyway, on the first shot.) A third, Orrin Hatch, named Lincoln and Reagan, but threw in Christ for good measure. This was not just pandering to Iowa's religious right. Throughout the debate, the Republican candidates spoke of God, and Christ, and of the role of Christian faith in a properly constructed society. And they spoke in obviously heartfelt, explicitly moralistic terms.
Asked about the killers of Columbine High School, revealed this week in their horrifically typical devotion to the culture of video murder and Jerry Springeresque fame, the Republicans blamed a national culture that has abandoned God, parents and teachers who have forgotten their roles as moral instructors and an entertainment industry that promotes a pathological disregard for life. Hatch, Bauer, Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes all argued that legal abortion, which implicitly denies the proposition that life is created by God and may therefore not be snuffed out by man, necessarily gives rise to a culture in which all human life is devalued--to Columbine. "What did we do in America to so undermine the sanctity of life that we could raise a couple of kids with empty hearts?" asked Bauer. "I think that part of it is that we undermine the sanctity of life by telling our children that they've got a constitutional right to take an innocent life if it's in their way." Democrats, by and large, do not talk like this.
And they do not talk as John McCain did about the old men of Beijing: "ruthless people hell-bent on hanging onto power." Or as Forbes did about the World Trade Organization: "a woolly mammoth without the charm." Or as Keyes did about campaign finance reform: "The government does not have the right to restrict our freedom of association, which should include the right to associate our money with the causes we believe in."
There's a choice, not an echo, out there.
Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.