Forget forecasts--high on sweep and low on accountability--about whole centuries or new millennia. Let us turn immediately to the 2000 election. It will prove more engaging than most sensible citizens now expect and is already more of a contest than Al Gore or George W. Bush anticipated. Let's look at each race as the year begins.
The Republicans: The year 1999 belonged to John McCain. He made two unconventional decisions that proved right, and an entirely predictable call that proved right, too.
His tactical stroke was to avoid competing in last August's Iowa straw poll. You ask: What Iowa straw poll? That's the point. George W. Bush won, as he was supposed to, while Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Dole got modest bumps of publicity. Dole is now gone and set to endorse Bush, and Forbes is struggling (though he's still well-organized for the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 24).
The big strategic surprise is McCain's ability to make the campaign finance issue work as a metaphor for what's wrong with Washington. It should never be underestimated how much Republican voters dislike Washington as long as it's under Bill Clinton's sway. If Clinton profited from the existing campaign money system, many Republicans reason it must be wrong.
Finally, McCain did the obvious well: weaving his experience as a Vietnam POW into a parable of courage, patriotism, maturity, independence and self-knowledge. He will reinforce that message today with a speech on patriotism and civic obligation. McCain made himself a perfect foil to Bush as questions arose about Bush's seriousness and readiness to be president--and, of course, a perfect foil to Clinton, too.
The year 2000 will be harder for McCain. Bush used 1999 well by establishing a powerful infrastructure of policy advisers and offering a serious agenda in a series of intelligent speeches. Put aside that some of Bush's promises (his big tax cut, especially) may hurt him in the fall. There is a coherence to Bush's program, and McCain is still playing policy catch-up.
In the meantime, Bush will try to trap McCain on taxes. If McCain attacks Bush's tax cuts too hard as too big, Bush wins an edge with anti-tax voters. If McCain moves too close to Bush's position, the courageous hero becomes a politician like all others. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis says McCain's way out of this box will be to stick to more modest tax cuts and emphasize the need to use surplus money to save Social Security.
Lacking Bush's campaign chest, McCain has placed a few large bets. He needs to win the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary. He has so overtouted the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary that he can't afford a loss there. And now McCain's campaign talks of a surprise victory in Michigan on Feb. 22.
Hyping the importance of Michigan makes the state's Republican governor, John Engler, the happiest man in the country. Engler, a strong Bush supporter, is a skilled organization politician of the sort that made Chicago's Democratic machine famous. Engler would love to stop McCain and save a flagging Bush candidacy by doing so--exactly as former New Hampshire governor John Sununu saved Bush, the father, in 1988.
The Democrats: Bradley came on strong for most of 1999. Gore halted the advance with his attacks on Bradley's health plan, but Bradley came back in the December debates and is spending a mountain of money in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Bradley is now investing a lot of time in Iowa, hoping for a surprise victory in a state thought to have been Gore territory. A Gore adviser said over the weekend that the vice president is going for a come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire in hopes of crippling Bradley early.
But don't bet on early knockout blows from either side. The Democratic race will come down to New York and California, both on March 7. Bradley has to win both. If he does, Gore might conceivably limp to victory with the help of southern primaries, but that's unlikely. Even if Bradley wins New York, where he's favored, but loses California, it's hard to see how he recovers. Gore's advantages in the South then have a chance to kick in.
Here's the monkey wrench: Under California's strange rules, voters can vote for any candidate in any party primary. Hypothetically, registered Republicans (and Independents) can vote for Bradley, Democrats (and Independents) for McCain. But convention delegates will be apportioned only on the basis of the votes of registered party members. So you'll have three vote counts: one for registered Democrats, another for registered Republicans and a third for all the ballots cast. It's possible that Bradley could lose to Gore among Democrats but win when Independents and Republican ballots are added to his totals.
Perception meaning almost everything in this business, who will decide who "won" California? The political consultants and pundits, that's who. If you can't stand pundits and consultants, root against the split result. But if it happens, it will be the metaphor for the tumultuous campaign no one predicted.