A Season of Trivialities

by | Oct 12, 2000

What an exciting election season. Just think of the campaign issues everyone’s talking about. Al Gore gave his wife a long smooch at the Democratic convention; will this endear him to suburban women? George W. got in trouble when he called a reporter an unpleasant name — something you’re supposed to do only when the […]

What an exciting election season.

Just think of the campaign issues everyone’s talking about. Al Gore gave his wife a long smooch at the Democratic convention; will this endear him to suburban women? George W. got in trouble when he called a reporter an unpleasant name — something you’re supposed to do only when the microphone is off. But then George smooched Oprah on the cheek; will this endear him to suburban women? Text in a Republican TV ad briefly superimposed the word “rats” over the word “bureaucrats,” sending an allegedly subliminal message. When asked about it, Bush insisted that the ad’s message was not “subliminable.”

And that’s just the presidential race. Don’t forget the top issue in the most widely watched congressional race: should Rick Lazio have crossed the stage to approach Hillary Clinton’s podium when he dared her to sign a campaign pledge?

A better question would be: who cares?

The past few weeks have seen a steady stream of such trivialities, endlessly rehashed and analyzed as if they are important news events. (Maureen Dowd devoted two of her columns to Lazio’s stage-crossing expedition.) Why have such utterly unimportant issues taken over this year’s campaign coverage?

The sad reason is that there are no important issues to discuss. Where do the candidates stand on Medicare? Gore wants to expand the program by $253 billion to cover prescription drugs, while Bush wants to expand it by only $135 billion. But both agree that government should take over prescription drug coverage. Taxes? Bush proposes an across-the-board tax cut, while Gore would “target” his cuts by giving tax breaks for specific purposes. But both agree that taxes should be cut most for the poor and middle class. Culture? Gore and Lieberman give Hollywood six months to comply with their demands for “decency”; the Bush campaign’s only criticism is that the Democrats aren’t serious enough. But both presume that Washington has a right to threaten Hollywood.

Or consider that famous stage-crossing in New York. The talk is all about Lazio’s style, which has been branded as “bullying.” (Poor little Hillary.) But everyone has forgotten the reason for Lazio’s trip: he wanted Hillary to sign a pledge not to take “soft money” contributions. Everyone has forgotten, because both candidates agree on the issue: they both want more government regulation of political campaigns.

The whole debate is about style, because there is no debate over substance. Pollsters place the blame on middle-class, middle-American, middle-of-the-road, white female “swing” voters. These voters, allegedly, have no firm convictions and are swayed by emotional appeals. Hence the warring kisses and matching Medicare plans.

I’m sure that such voters exist, but the fact that they determine the election — and the fact that the swing voters are left to swing in whatever stray breeze comes along — is just a symptom. The real cause for the triviality of our elections is the fact that our cultural leaders are hostile to any politician who takes on important, fundamental political issues.

Consider the last time America saw a real ideological race: 1994’s Contract with America. The Republicans promised a debate over “the role of government,” and they were clear — at least by today’s standards — about what that role was. They pledged to cut welfare spending and curb the regulatory state, pushing the government out of the role of economic dictator.

Just for the courage of taking a principled stand, these Republicans deserved to win — and they did. But the country’s intellectual leaders, both liberals and conservatives, condemned them as arrogant “extremists,” and as “ideologues” (as if having political ideas were a sin) — and then blamed them for the disastrous performance of middle-of-the-roaders like Bob Dole.

Hence today’s lack of debate. When our culture condemns anyone who stands on principle and makes “ideology” into a pejorative term, it’s no wonder that political races end up turning on trivial details and personal quirks.

The candidates owe it to us to elevate the level of this election. Both Gore and Bush should state, once and for all, whether they want socialism or free markets for medicine. Both should be required to say “yes” or “no” to the proposition that society owes a living to welfare recipients. And someone needs to ask whether Washington has the right to dictate how Hollywood markets its movies. Perhaps then we could have a real election.

And if they won’t do that, the least the candidates could do is offer to debate whether bureaucrats really are rats.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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