Then There Were Four

After months of bounding off buses and into gaggles of strangers, the presidential candidates should by now feel much as Job did after he lost his camels and acquired boils. But the candidates manage, most of the time, to resemble human sunbeams, up and doing with a heart for any fate. Now their fates will come with a rush, beginning next Monday when some actual voters, all of them Iowans, will finally be able to intrude upon the nominating process. The fates of all but four candidates are already known.

Bill Bradley's task against Al Gore is difficult. John McCain's task against George W. Bush is even more so. Bradley is trying to be nominated without much help from two substantial portions of the base of the Democratic Party--African-Americans and organized labor. McCain is running against much of the Republican nominating electorate.

McCain favors campaign-finance reforms opposed by most Republicans. And he criticizes Bush's large proposed tax cut in language (the cut, he says, puts Social Security at risk) that borders on plagiarism from President Clinton and congressional Democrats. Which goes far to explain media sympathy for McCain.

For example, this was a question to him on "Good Morning America" from Diane Sawyer: "However brave a stand campaign-finance reform may be, members of your own party have rejected it. What's the matter with them? Why don't they get it?" A New York Times story on McCain's tax proposal began this way: "After decades in which Republican presidential candidates have reflexively promoted tax cuts as the key to prosperity and electoral success, Senator John McCain of Arizona is betting that there is a more potent issue this time around: Social Security." Note the word "reflexively." A reflex is a nonrational response to stimuli. People who act reflexively are not acting thoughtfully. In contrast, McCain...

McCain is called "unconventional," but in stressing campaign-finance reform he is following the conventions of populism, practicing what can be called gentrified populism. It is without the crudities of, say, Ross Perot's populism, but the gentrified sort relies, as populism generally does, on denunciations of "special interests," denunciations long on heat but short on explanations of how the adjective modifies the noun.

Criticizing Bush's proposed tax cut as too big, McCain wants to use much of the surplus to pay down what he calls the "crushing" national debt of $5.6 trillion. But what, exactly, is being crushed? Certainly not the economy. It might be nice for the nation to be debt-free, as it has not been since 1835, when Andrew Jackson brought the nation to the sunlit uplands of frugality, briefly. But would that be important?

The crucial measurement is the size of the debt relative to the economy. At the end of the second world war it was 118 percent of GDP. It trended steadily down to 22 percent in 1973. With the stagflation of the 1970s and the large deficits of the 1980s, it rose to 43 percent in 1993. Since then the expanding economy has made the debt just 41 percent of GDP. And if projected economic growth occurs, the debt as a percentage of GDP will fall to 20 percent by 2010.

Now, let us suppose something improbable--that Congress would agree to devote a substantial portion of the surplus to deficit reduction rather than spending. McCain must argue that money devoted to deficit reduction is better for economic performance, and for the quality of the American taxpayer's life, than the same sum devoted to tax reduction. That is arguable, but far from self-evident.

One measure of McCain's difficulties is this: Bush has reportedly spent almost $500,000 on television buys in Phoenix, which votes Feb. 22. For Bradley, the pre-primary season has been a crash course in what it is like to be on the receiving end of the Clinton-Gore kind of campaigning. Bradley seems stunned by the fact that Gore will say anything.

To take an example not involving Bradley, a few months ago, when the Senate overwhelmingly refused to ratify the test-ban treaty, Gore said Republicans "decided not even to have any hearings on this treaty before they voted on a strict party-line basis to reject it." But it was Democrats who all voted alike. And in addition to the 26 hearings that involved testimony pertaining to the treaty since the president signed it, after the Senate unanimously agreed to vote on it the Senate held five hearings with 27 witnesses in three committees.

Bradley, too, says some dubious things. Having poured money into Iowa (the Gore camp insists that Bradley, a hero to campaign-finance reformers, will break the legal spending cap there) and not moved his numbers much, Bradley has been badly thrown off stride by the blizzard of Gore charges, ranging from Bradley's alleged callousness regarding farmers to the cost of Bradley's health-care plan and the plan's supposed bad effect on African-Americans (because it replaces Medicaid with vouchers). Gore probably knows that the surest way to needle Bradley is to question his racial sensitivity. The needling knocked Bradley, the foe of negative campaigning, off his high horse. He dusted off the fact that it was Gore in the 1988 New York primary who tied Michael Dukakis to Willie Horton.

Race is Bradley's passion. "I remember," he says, "the exact moment that I became a Democrat." He was a Capitol Hill intern in the summer of 1964, before his senior year at Princeton. After watching the Senate vote on that year's Civil Rights Act, "I became a Democrat because it was the party of justice." Well. Eighty-two percent of Senate Republicans (27 of 33) voted for the act, whereas just 69 percent of Senate Democrats (46 of 67) did. That is, 21 Senate Democrats opposed the act. Only six Republicans did.

As an epiphany story, Bradley's needs work. He may be about to have time for that. The odds still are that he, and McCain, will soon be on the sidelines, watching the last two still standing.