Hearing With Your Third Ear

The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant... --The opening words of President Washington's farewell address, 1796

Time was, that is how presidents were understood--modestly, as administrators who executed the will of others. Nowadays, presidents permeate the federal leviathan with their wills, and they, like it, are everywhere. So a presidential election is a great national temperature-taking, measuring how Americans feel about everything.

Some elections, such as that of John Kennedy in 1960, are continental shrugs, in which the country says, "What's the difference?" Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Kennedy supporter, felt impelled to publish a book, "Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?" and the popular vote difference was only 118,574 votes--about one per precinct. Some elections, such as that of Ronald Reagan in 1980 (the Iran hostage crisis, the "misery index"--the sum of the inflation and interest rates--at 20), are akin to the country slapping its palm on the kitchen table and exclaiming, "We'd better try something different."

This year's campaign was uncommonly substantive--its subjects ranged from ballistic-missile defense to prescription-drug entitlements to partial privatization of Social Security--and remarkably civil. It also reflected, and advanced, the ongoing revision of political categories and stereotypes.

Al Gore, candidate of the liberal party, ran vowing to conserve the status quo--to defend Social Security against partial privatization, to defend public education against competition from school-choice programs, to defend unrestricted abortion and myriad racial preferences against adverse judgments from a reconfigured Supreme Court. George W. Bush, candidate of the conservative party, effectively ended the 60-year-old conservatism that was born in reaction against the New Deal. He accepts that the primary domestic responsibility of the next president is to strengthen the emblematic achievement of the New Deal, Social Security--and to enlarge the entitlement menu of the emblematic achievement of the Great Society, Medicare.

It is well said that to understand politics you need a third ear, to hear what is not said. Think of the things that were not issues this year. Gore did not call for restoring the 70 percent marginal income-tax rates that existed until the most important congressional action of the 1980s, the Reagan tax cuts. Gore did not call for repeal of the most important congressional action of the 1990s, the welfare reform act of 1996. On the other hand, Bush did not talk, as Republicans did just six years ago, of abolishing four cabinet-level departments, including, and especially, the Department of Education.

Leadership has been defined as the ability to inflict pain and get away with it, or to persuade people to accept pain--short-term pain for long-term gain. Neither candidate sought a mandate for that sort of leadership. Bush asked the country to be brave and endure a tax cut; Gore said the country was entitled to even more entitlements than it has or than Bush envisions. Neither candidate has an adversarial stance toward the political or moral culture of the day; neither feels Flannery O'Connor's prompting "to push as hard as the age that pushes against you." But, then, pushing change through Washington--liberal or conservative change--is going to be slow going.

In the 1938 off-year elections the country, partly recoiling against President Roosevelt's overreaching in his plan to pack the Supreme Court by expanding its membership, produced a Congress in which Republicans and conservative--mostly Southern--Democrats could largely control the parameters of government activism. Congress did not again have a liberal legislating majority until the anti-Goldwater landslide of 1964 gave President Johnson a two-year window of opportunity with the do-everything 89th Congress. The 1966 elections brought a Republican resurgence in Congress--and the election of a new governor of California, Ronald Reagan. So in the last 62 years, there has been a liberal legislating majority in Congress for only two years. It will be a long time before there is another.

As for conservative change, this year's candidates, in their attempted seductions of the electorate, touched all the erogenous zones on the body politic. The siren song of modulated conservatism was: Accept leviathan, but leaven its operations with a modest expansion of the range of choices (of schools, of retirement investments, of health-care providers).

A country in which personal computers are selling at the pace of one every two seconds and Internet usage is doubling every 100 days (and accounts for 13 percent of electricity consumption) is a country comfortable with, and insistent upon, more choices. The country has a rapidly broadening sense of competence and empowerment. Americans, who of late have been subject to moral hypochondria, do not equate material improvement with moral improvement. But they may be correct in concluding that some of today's material changes, such as broad mastery of new information technologies, come coupled with promising moral change.

Theologian Richard John Neuhaus, reflecting on the idea of moral progress, notes that until about 1900, most people lived half their lives with toothaches, but few people born after 1960 know what a toothache is. In some ways, moral progress has been as striking: Try explaining segregated buses to someone born after 1970. One reason politics has lost some of the sizzle of olden days is that some stark injustices have not merely been corrected, they have been relegated to the realm of unintelligible things.

As always, the election-year surfeit of blather called to mind the complaint about the person who lost the talent for communicating with losing the faculty of speech. But judging by what was said and unsaid, it has been a good year.