As they craft their messages for the coming blur of primaries, the 2000 presidential candidates have a bit of a problem: The country is faring pretty well.
By their very nature, White House aspirants must decry problems and promise bold ideas to fix them. Yet since Bill Clinton took the oath of office in 1993, the stock market has tripled, the jobless and welfare rolls have been cut nearly in half and crime has dropped substantially.
The result is that the candidates are carefully calibrating their advertising for an era of prosperity, spotlighting national shortcomings without the sky-is-falling tone that marked previous campaigns. Strategists say they must scratch beneath the surface to tap into veins of voter discontent. And some argue that Ronald Reagan's famous 1980 question--"Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"--is no longer the operative yardstick.
"There's an underlying sense of concern that runs the gamut of a whole range of issues beyond the stock market," said Stuart Stevens, a media adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "Just because we're used to looking at those issues being tied to inflation or some numerical misery index doesn't mean there aren't other indications that people are very troubled about the country."
Vice President Gore arguably faces the trickiest task, since he cannot paint too dark a picture of the national landscape without sparking questions about why his own administration failed to make more progress.
"We're talking about solutions," said Carter Eskew, a top Gore strategist. "Obviously there's an implicit sense that there need to be some improvements or we wouldn't be talking about solutions. While there is not a dominant issue as there was in '92 with the economy, there are pockets of concern: education, health care."
The subdued tone is a far cry from the drama of the 1992 campaign, when Arkansas Gov. Clinton hammered President George Bush about the swollen unemployment rate. One Clinton ad denounced "the worst economic record since the Great Depression. Aren't you ready to say enough is enough?"
An ad for President Bush, by contrast, played upon global tensions soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union: "In a world where we're just one unknown dictator away from the next major crisis, who do you most trust to be sitting in this chair?"
These days, most of the GOP contenders talk about values, the most obvious line of attack in the wake of Clinton's tawdry impeachment ordeal. In several of his spots, Bush speaks about restoring what he calls "honor and dignity to the office."
But the Republicans are also tackling issues. Bush's ads deal with improving education through vouchers and charter schools, preserving Social Security and Medicare, and strengthening the military. John McCain attacks pork-barrel spending and special interests strangling Washington. Steve Forbes talks to voters about his plans to adopt a flat tax, abolish the capital gains tax and privatize Social Security.
"Social Security is an easy one; you don't have to push them," said Bill Dal Col, Forbes's campaign manager. "Health care, they know there's a problem. Education, they know there's a problem. Taxes, they automatically know they're paying too much." Still, he conceded, "if we were having an economic meltdown, there would clearly be more urgency to it."
Indeed, the one issue on which a Forbes commercial frontally attacks Bush for a "betrayal"--the possibility of raising the retirement age for Social Security--involves a long-term problem rather than a short-term crisis.
"One of the reasons it's hard for politicians to get as much traction these days is because people are getting complacent," said Greg Stevens, McCain's media adviser.
If joblessness, communism and crime no longer have the same resonance in today's placid political environment, other issues may be masked by the strong economic statistics. Stuart Stevens, the Bush adviser, ticked off his own list: "A sense of unease about what's happening in Washington. . . . A sense of concern about the lack of direction in foreign policy. . . . A sense of being overtaxed. . . . A sense that families are working harder to have a middle-class life."
The booming American economy has transformed the debate in another fundamental respect. This is the first presidential election in three decades without a large budget deficit casting a shadow over the candidates and their ability to propose costly programs.
"The big cop-out of this election is the projected budget surplus, which is minimizing scrutiny of the candidates," said Kathleen Hall Jamison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication. In tougher times, she said, "everyone looks at every nickel. You have to have a rhetoric of sacrifice. Now you can have a rhetoric of greater largess. Even the Republicans this year are proposing things."
On the Democratic side, Gore and former senator Bill Bradley are arguing about dueling health care plans on a scale that would have been unthinkable in 1992, when the country was struggling to emerge from a recession. Gore has taken particular aim at the cost of the Bradley proposal, which the senator puts at $650 billion over 10 years.
"A year ago, the conventional wisdom was nobody cared about health care," said Anita Dunn, Bradley's communications director. "It was not seen as an issue that was on the national agenda. This campaign has put it there. . . . Bill's message is about taking this prosperity and challenging ourselves to say how can we move forward."
Last week, Bradley began airing a health care commercial in which he talked about "a prescription drug benefit for the elderly" and putting "the doctors back in charge of the decision-making." Two days later, Gore unveiled an ad in which he talked about "a new prescription drug benefit for seniors" and giving "control back to the patients and doctors, not HMO bureaucrats."
Beyond concrete issues, two White House contenders have promised a different approach to campaigning. Bush says in one ad that "Americans are sick of . . . mud-throwing and name-calling." And Bradley asks in one spot: "Wouldn't it be better if we had more than sound bites and photo ops when we were choosing a candidate?"
Highlighting dire problems without seeming too negative is a common balancing act for politicians. In talking about an issue, said Dal Col, "you have to make sure you communicate it in the right way. You have to present it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. In this kind of environment, people want to be optimistic. They don't want to see impending doom."