George W. Bush recently admitted that he would have to wait to "change the tone" of American politics until after the election--he has a campaign to win, after all. So, after having dispatched Al Gore as an "old-style, big-government Democrat" whose policies threaten the economy, insult the intelligence of average Americans and represent a sellout to special interests, Bush will roll up his sleeves and work with Democrats Dick Gephardt and Charlie Rangel in a cozy atmosphere of bipartisan comity.
Right. That scenario is obviously an illusion. But it's an illusion with deep wellsprings in the contemporary American imagination. Every time Bush talks of being a "uniter, not a divider," he taps into a persistent anti-political temptation in our public life.
This was the impulse that helped fuel the compelling maverick campaigns of Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura and John McCain. But more fundamentally, it threatens the vitality of American politics, by imposing on it a relentlessly fuzzy and anodyne tone inimical to serious argument (which is reflected in attempts to limit political spending and ads).
It's a tendency Bush shouldn't be reinforcing, and he will regret it if he's elected. Because politics--and the division and argument that come with it--doesn't go away at the end of a campaign.
There may be sound tactical reasons for Bush's "uniter" rhetoric at the moment. It is an implicit criticism of President Clinton, whose "war room" mentality and personal behavior have done their share to create poisonous controversies in Washington. It also distances him from former House speaker Newt Gingrich, serving as a signal to Democrats that there's no reason to be too excited about defeating him. But Bush often reveals the underlying premise of his rhetoric--an aversion to political activity itself. Referring to health care in the third presidential debate, he said, "There's a lot of bickering in Washington, D.C. It's kind of like a political issue, as opposed to a people issue." In his latest stump speech, he criticizes Gore on Social Security for taking "the political way." This isn't just lazy phrase-making. It is a calculated appeal to the notion that it is possible to escape from politics.
Perot championed this idea in his 1992 and 1996 presidential runs, suggesting that all that stood in the way of Americans getting "under the hood" to fix the nation's problems without the grubby bother of politics was the venality of the parties. Ventura, author of the modestly titled "Do I Stand Alone? Going to the Mat Against Political Pawns and Media Jackals," operates under a similar conceit, suggesting that the arguments in Washington are meaningless squabbles. McCain, who wrinkles his nose at partisanship, was this year's paladin of the anti-political sensibility.
The campaign finance "reform" that all three of these mavericks support is of a piece with this sensibility. Many of the reform proposals, especially a ban on "soft money," the large, relatively unregulated donations to political parties, would serve to crimp the parties, the very incubators of politics. Campaign finance legislation, by partly de-funding politics, would make for less of it.
A glimpse of the future envisioned is this year's New York Senate race. It features one of the most ideologically divisive figures in the nation, but Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio have conspired to try to keep outside interest groups from airing political ads, from making public arguments, from--in short--creating more politics.
One goal of the Clinton-Lazio soft-money ban has been to tamp down on "negative" advertising. A key assumption of the anti-politicos is that negativism is an unhealthy force that should be hunted down and driven from public life. This, again, bespeaks a distaste for all political argument, because it is impossible to make a case for one set of policies without at least implicitly criticizing another.
The tendency to shun argument is so powerful in our culture because, as Alan Wolfe has pointed out in his book, "One Nation, After All," tolerance has become the nation's prime virtue. Tolerance pervades the land like the poppies outside Oz, soothing and soporific, keeping anyone from speaking too loudly or staking too firm a position on anything. A firm position might smack of judgment, and judgmentalism is the nation's cardinal sin. What was perhaps most disturbing about the impeachment controversy was the public's seeming impatience with having to pay attention and decide.
Ultimately, one can't dispense with politics without jettisoning self-government as well. Politics is inevitable--because ambition, malice and disagreement are inevitable. The Framers, keen students of human nature, understood this. So they built the world's sturdiest vehicle of self-government on the assumption of constant faction and contention. Our contemporary maverick anti-politicians are operating, whether they know it or not, on the basis of a different idea of human nature, one that assumes sweetness and consensus await us after some fine-tuning of the system or a burst of good intentions. But the only way to have less contention and argument is to have less involvement by ordinary people and interest groups--one of the effects of campaign finance reform. This is why there is the slightest whiff of the authoritarian to most mavericks, especially Perot, who seemed to think that we would all get along better if we just shut up and let him get to work "under the hood."
American politics is a little like Hegel's history, lurching forward on the strength of division and fights. Take the recent career of two "wedge issues": crime and welfare. For 30 years, Republicans used these issues to divide Democrats from their base voters and beat them in elections. They were political issues, divisive issues, and--not coincidentally--winning issues. After three decades of losing because of them, Democrats decided to get on board. Welfare reform and successful crime control policies--now supported by both parties in an orgy of bipartisanship--are perhaps the most significant public policy accomplishments of the last decade. Division came first, consensus later. Three cheers for "wedge issues"!
Bush's "uniter" rhetoric bucks against these hard facts of political life, but at the moment it is contradicted by almost everything else he says. Since only a member of the Assad family wins 90 percent of the vote, elections as we know them are about dividing the electorate and winning at least 51 percent of it. And since fear and loathing are basic human motivators, scaring people about the other candidate is an important tool to getting there.
So, Bush may say that he comes not to bury Caesar, but to unite him with Brutus once and for all in a warm bath of good feeling. But at every campaign stop he rips Gore as a threat to Americans' pocketbooks and way of life. Bush is dividing, just as fast and hard as he can. He says now that it will be different once he's president, but his "uniter" dream will have to be deferred then as well.
As president, Bush's father made the mistake of thinking that politics ended once it came time to govern. As a consequence, George Mitchell, under no such illusion, shrewdly maneuvered every day in his position as Senate majority leader to help ensure that the elder Bush served only one term. Now, if elected, George W. may succeed, for instance, in passing a Social Security reform that will shift a key New Deal program to a more conservative political course. But he won't do it without becoming red of tooth and claw.
The sooner a President George W. Bush begins to argue with Dick Gephardt, the better.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.