The Bushed And The Bored

If present trends continue (and they often don't), get ready for post-party depression--that empty feeling on waking up to find the thrill is gone. Reporters aren't the only ones reluctant to reconcile themselves to the dreary and predictable knife fight that likely lies ahead. Gore will ambush George; Bush will gore Al. Or vice versa. We're already bored at the prospect and bushed just thinking about it.

Actually, the ailment is bigger than either of them. The source of the ennui is a vague dissatisfaction with both parties that is becoming a permanent condition of the American electorate. It's the biggest and most elusive political story around. The underground reservoir known as the independent vote is huge, nearly 40 percent of voters. Ross Perot and Bill Clinton tapped it; Bill Bradley tried. John McCain has had the most success of late, but even Uncle Fun is having trouble sizing up the "indies."

Like Achilles in his tent, Perot sulks. Jesse Ventura has bolted the Reform Party with a blast; Pat Buchanan is a fringe candidate. Perot and McCain would seem a natural fit with each other, but they aren't--and not just because they strongly disagree on trade. While McCain was a POW in Hanoi, Perot helped support McCain's family back home. "We loved him for it," McCain says. But then Perot continued to believe that American soldiers were alive in Southeast Asia, while McCain came to see such stories as a cruel hoax. "I got a little emotional about it because I saw how destructive it was to the families," McCain said last week, recalling one war widow who divorced her second husband and went into debt chasing ghosts in Vietnam, only to find she had been conned by profiteers.

In 1995 McCain told me that Perot was "nuttier than a fruitcake" on the issue of live POW/MIAs in Southeast Asia. When the story was printed in NEWSWEEK, Perot called McCain, they quarreled and didn't speak again for several years. But then six months ago Perot invited McCain to Dallas and they talked for two hours, mostly about gulf war syndrome, which they agree is real. "I view our relationship as again amicable," McCain says. But not amicable enough for McCain to chuck it all and truly shake up American politics with a Bull Moose-style third-party candidacy in the spirit of his hero, Teddy Roosevelt. Instead, when the GOP nomination is finally out of reach, McCain will back Bush and return to the Senate secure in the knowledge that he has already changed his party, whether his fellow Republicans know it yet or not.

Tactically, McCain's Virginia Beach speech last week criticizing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell was a bust. It took him off his message of appealing to party regulars and caused a backlash that will probably spur turnout on the religious right. When he apologized for having called the televangelists "forces of evil" in an offhand comment aboard his bus, much of the thickheaded press thought he was apologizing for the speech, which muddied his argument further.

But in the longer term, the speech was a milestone. Rockefeller Republicans are dead. (The late Nelson Rockefeller was to the left of where even the Democratic Party is today.) Their descendants, in the Northeast and pockets of rationality elsewhere, may be known as McCain Republicans from now on. They are fiscal conservatives who believe that the GOP can't win without new blood, and the new blood is moderate. They know that the far-flung, free-floating independents they seek are bound together by only two ideas: tolerance and political reform.

So by attacking "the agents of intolerance" and "the failed philosophy that money is our message," McCain set a new path. This year's Death Wish Republicans will fight to the finish to avoid following it. They insist on nominating a candidate shown by polls everywhere to be weaker than McCain against Gore. But if the GOP loses in November--especially if it loses big--the McCain message will grow louder in the future, even if the war hero himself doesn't carry it. That's how parties get transformed over time.

Bradley hoped to play a similar role on the Democratic side; he failed. Because he needed to woo mainstream Democrats, Bradley played down the corruption-in-Washington themes that score with independents in favor of an ambitious antipoverty message. The soccer moms didn't buy it. And by running left, Bradley did nothing to appeal to right-of-center indies on issues like school choice. Instead of acting defensive about his Senate votes for voucher experiments, Bradley could have kicked off a historic debate among Democrats on why black children are trapped in awful public schools while white children can escape. Still, Brad-ley made a lasting contribution by putting health care front and center. Even the Republicans now have to confront it.

Both Gore and Bush will soon tack hard toward the center. Bush is already attacking McCain as soft on such indie issues as breast-cancer research and the environment, which is mighty hypocritical given his own weaker record in these areas. As they chow down on soft money, neither Gore nor Bush will pay more than lip service to confronting the dangers of money in politics. Neither can plausibly run as a reformer. That means that barring a McCain miracle, we may be looking at another election where more than a third of the voters cannot get excited about either party's nominee. Many independents--the most important voting bloc in the most important democracy in the world--will stay home or hold their noses in the booth. Even politics shouldn't smell that bad.