No one knows who the nominees for president will be this year, but we do know three factors that will make the election of 2000 easily distinguishable from those of the old century.
More than ever before, the challenge to candidates will not be so much getting people to vote for them as simply persuading people to vote. Between 1960 and 1996, the turnout trend was straight downward, except for 1992, when voter anger with the status quo induced millions to support the independent candidacy of Ross Perot and momentarily reversed the trend.
But general prosperity has melted that anger, and as yet no wave of enthusiasm has appeared to replace it. In a dead-calm climate of opinion, with millions turned off by the money-saturated political process, the parties will have to struggle to turn out even their most loyal adherents. As a rule, low turnouts favor Republicans, because the more affluent and better-educated are most likely to vote. It may not be true in 2000, however. In the most recent election cycles, Democrats, powerfully aided by teachers and other unions and the growing political activism of Latinos and African Americans, have developed voter identification and turnout tools more efficient than Republicans and their allies in either business or the religious conservative movement have deployed. The Democrats could win the voter mobilization war.
The second difference is that with the end of the Cold War and the improvement in many social indicators--the decline in crime, welfare dependency, abortion and teen pregnancy rates--the Republicans' cupboard of issues is looking bare. Communism, crime and moral decline are not the threats they once were. Republicans have tried to make taxes their issue, but ironically, the achievements of Republican governors in states with 70 percent of the population in actually reducing taxes have taken the steam out of demands for federal tax cuts.
Democrats are strongly favored on the issues that do matter most to voters--health care, education and Social Security. Bill Bradley's vote against welfare reform and the support both he and Vice President Al Gore give to affirmative action and homosexual rights could become wedge issues for the Republicans. But overall, the issue agenda is heavily tilted in the Democrats' favor.
Were these the only things that set the 2000 election apart, the Republicans might have little hope. But the other factor--one we have not seen since 1976--is that this campaign follows hard on a major scandal in the incumbent administration.
The press has given this factor the label "Clinton fatigue," but that is a misnomer. It sounds too much like the standard weariness voters express after one party and its president have been in office for eight years. The normal cyclical pattern of American politics is one thing; what voters are expressing this year is quite another.
A year ago the public was telling Republicans not to remove President Clinton from office. Today, with that threat gone, that same public is giving full voice in voter interviews to its repugnance at the spectacle of the Oval Office's being used for trysts between the president of the United States and a woman young enough to be his daughter.
Gore praised that president for seven years--and continues to do so. Bradley, because he is competing for the support of Democratic loyalists in Iowa and New Hampshire, cannot echo unreservedly the moral condemnation many Americans express at the example Clinton showed to their children--and the world.
On the most important issue of 2000--the character question--Clinton has left an indelible stain on his party, just as Richard Nixon did in 1976, when another good man, Jerry Ford, lost to a one-term southern governor in an act of delayed punishment for sins he had not committed himself.
It is the uncertain equation created by those three special factors that makes the outcome of the 2000 presidential election so uncertain.
One of the true heroes of the Watergate scandal, former attorney general Elliot Richardson, died last week. It is ironic that he is best known for having resigned, rather than carrying out Richard Nixon's order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Engagement, not resignation, was the keynote of Richardson's extraordinary public life, from his military bravery, to his fearless prosecutorial independence in Massachusetts, to his notable service as the head of four Cabinet departments. He and his wife, Anne, who died a few months earlier, were models of good citizenship. She was for many years the volunteer head of Reading is Fundamental, an organization that distributes books to needy children. Both of them set examples of civic leadership and responsibility that serve as a guidepost for the new century.