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Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Democratic Difference (July 13, 2000)
Ralph Nader says the Republican and Democratic parties are indistinguishable. Jack Beatty looks at the record on labor, "the issue our era will be measured by," and sees quite another reality.

Your Morality, My Values (June 28, 2000)
Values and morality may sound like the same thing, Christopher Caldwell writes, but Democrats have been able to capitalize on one, while Republicans remain stuck on the other.

Who Owns Capitalism? (June 15, 2000)
Has democracy at last caught up with capitalism? Jack Beatty on the balance of power between the corporation and society.

Joe Sixpack's Revenge (May 17, 2000)
If the authors of two new books are right, it's time for Republicans to give class warfare a chance. Christopher Caldwell explains.

Governing Globalism (May 3, 2000)
Jack Beatty on the protests in Washington, Runaway World, and globalization's good and bad sides.

The Uses of Sprawl (April 6, 2000)
Christopher Caldwell on Suburban Nation, New Urbanism, and how Democrats can reap the benefits of the sprawl they helped to create.

Be Afraid (April 6, 2000)
If the digital revolution produces the dystopian nightmare envisioned in the April issue of Wired, humanity's only hope may be the end of capitalism as we know it. Try selling that in an election year, Jack Beatty writes.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

The Issues That Aren't

Where does George W. Bush stand on Microsoft? Where does Al Gore stand on Kosovo? You don't know? You're not alone

by Christopher Caldwell

July 26, 2000

There's been a lot of grousing this year about the lack of interest in the upcoming political conventions. But the lack of interest is understandable. People watch conventions to see issues debated and, so far, this campaign is remarkable for the number of issues that have been sidestepped. Both George W. Bush and Al Gore have concentrated primarily on the same two issues, social security and education -- and their positions on these have gradually converged (mild to moderate privatization of the former, a plethora of new programs to improve the latter). They're both important issues, but the unusually sharp focus on them has made this presidential campaign notable for some spectacular absences. It's worth looking at some of the things the candidates are not talking about and figure out why.

Tobacco. In the wake of the state tobacco agreements of 1998, anti-smoking activists have grown more forthright about declaring their ultimate goal: not stronger regulation of tobacco but its total elimination from American life. (Massachusetts residents are witnessing a multi-million-dollar state-funded advertising barrage to that end.) This is a colossal development, for two reasons. First, it's an assault on one of America's largest industries. Second, at a time when the Democratic Party has taken the lead in legislating to protect lifestyles (particularly sexual ones), it reflects a Democratic attempt to eradicate a lifestyle. (And there can be no doubt that opposition to smoking is a Democratic issue. It benefits their biggest donors, the plaintiffs' lawyers, who have gobbled up as much as a quarter of the tobacco payouts the states have received. Apart from John McCain, all the hard-line smoking opponents in Congress, Dick Durbin, Bob Graham, Henry Waxman, have been Democrats, while all the anti-anti-tobacco forces, Tom Delay, John Linder, Tom Bliley, have been Republicans.)

It's not hard to sort out where the candidates stand on this issue. Al Gore made an emotional speech about his sister's death from lung cancer at the Democratic convention in 1996. Bush has favored litigation caps that would thwart the trial lawyers who file suits against tobacco companies. So why is neither of them talking about it? Gore doesn't want to because the 35 percent of Americans who still tell pollsters they smoke -- and given the climate of anathema that surrounds tobacco, we can assume the real figure is somewhat higher -- presumably don't want their Great Consolation taken away from them. But then, why doesn't Bush seek the votes of smokers disgruntled at seeing their rights curtailed? Because that 35 percent is concentrated in the white working classes, where Republicans already enjoy a strong advantage. By making an explicit appeal he would open himself up to accusations that he is in the back pocket of the tobacco companies and squander an important advantage that Gore's fundraising record, especially the Buddhist temple incident, has given Bush on campaign finance. There is also a more straightforward campaign-finance issue: Democrats have largely sworn off campaign contributions from Big Tobacco, but the spigots remain open to the GOP. Bush wants to keep this story off the front pages. The cigarette issue shows campaign finance to be -- in a subterranean way -- a much bigger issue than it appears.

Kosovo. True, the operation to break Slobodan Milosevic's hold on Yugoslavia's Albanian province ended more than a year ago. But the U.S. still has troops there; the mission brought with it a number of controversial innovations, from global humanitarian intervention to an air-war-only strategy; and such military operations are usually still being debated long after they've reached their climax. Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, for instance, viewed it as a matter of desperate necessity to show that Clinton had supported -- or, at any rate, hadn't opposed -- the highly popular Gulf War of 1991.

The present candidates have different reasons for sweeping Kosovo under the rug. Gore understands that the operation was far from popular. The war led to worries about putting U.S. troops under international command, and about the open-endedness of humanitarian commitments. None of the 213 House members who voted not to endorse the bombing seem likely to get punished at the polls. At the beginning of the bombing, only 37 percent of the public said the operation was worth the loss of a single American life. And 91 percent said they would oppose it if American losses climbed to a thousand or more.

In the event, America lost nobody, which explains why Bush can't talk about it, either. To carp at military leadership would seem unpatriotic. Since Bush greeted news of the bombing with lockstep approval, to change course now would only highlight his tentativeness in foreign-policy matters (a weakness Bush was obviously trying to address by picking a former defense secretary to be his Vice President).

Microsoft. In moving to break up the largest of America's high-tech companies, the Clinton Administration's Justice Department has made trust-busting more central to American politics than it has been in decades. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is unpopular in certain key constituencies, from envious fellow elites to sought-after Internet-savvy twenty-somethings (for whom Web sites parodying Gates's high-handed monopolism have become a stock reference). So why isn't Al Gore making a theme of the issue? Because Democrats remain vulnerable, even after presiding over a record boom economy, to Reagan-era denunciations of the party as anti-business. Bobo (see David Brooks) swing-voters want reassurance that Gore belongs to the party's Clinton wing, not its Wellstone wing. In the days after the Microsoft decision was announced, the company's stock plummeted, dragging much of the high-tech sector down with it. And there are now a lot of people who own stock -- 59 percent of Americans, up from just 19 percent in 1983. By one estimate, a quarter of the population now owns Microsoft stock.
But that begs the question of why Bush didn't address "little guy" shareholders with his own appeal, announcing -- as my colleague Fred Barnes urged in The Weekly Standard last winter -- that if elected he would re-examine the proceedings against Microsoft. That Bush said nothing has to do with the way stocks are owned. There is indeed now a Middle American majority that has an interest in a healthy stock market -- but only because they've entrusted their savings to money-market funds and union pensions, which invest it in turn. In their political position, these Americans differ little from the people who decades ago put their money in savings accounts. A general interest in stock appreciation does not amount to a specific sympathy with Microsoft. If Microsoft looks likely to be punished financially, whoever runs the union fund that has 2 percent of its assets in Microsoft can sell it and buy something more promising. The average "shareholder" won't even know it's happened. The percentage of people who actively trade their own stocks has remained relatively unchanged. It is to these voters, who may have a real interest in Microsoft as a stock, that Bush would address his appeals. But they're easily caricatured as fat cats -- not constituents for whom a "compassionate conservative" wants to appear to be bending over backward.
From the archives of The Atlantic Monthly

An Acquired Taste, by James Fallows (July 2000)
Al Gore is the most lethal debater in politics, a ruthless combatant who will say whatever it takes to win, and who leaves opponents not just beaten but brutalized. But Gore is no natural-born killer. He studied hard to become the man he is today

Maybe the candidates themselves are to blame for the large number of issues missing from the campaign. This election season is rife with issues on which Bush and Gore are uncomfortable taking any position at all -- whether for, against, or undecided. The best recent example came in mid-July, when Gore was asked by Tim Russert on Meet the Press whether he supported the Supreme Court's decision allowing the Boy Scouts to ban gay counselors. Gore couldn't support the decision without offending important gay constituents. He couldn't attack the decision without offending important suburban swing voters. And he couldn't take an in-between position without offending everybody. So he replied, "I haven't read the opinion."

It's hard to believe that this muzzled candidate is the same Al Gore who claims to be salivating at the prospect of showing off his superior issue-expertise in one-on-one debates with George W. Bush. Perhaps Gore's willingness to play the fool shows that -- in a miraculous prosperity that few politicians understand but all claim credit for -- the less a candidate gets pinned down, the better his chances.

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Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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