Anti-Politics as Usual

When Ted Kennedy failed to pry the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination away from incumbent Jimmy Carter, he declared, “The dream will never die,” and it was pretty clear what he meant. When Bill Bradley last week gave up his challenge to Al Gore for that same honor ‘n’ privilege, he declared, “We have been defeated, but the cause for which I ran has not been.” And I, for one, don’t have a clue what he was talking about.

Was it health-care reform? That is what he pushed hardest in the campaign, but it’s an issue he never made much of until then. (And the Clinton-Gore administration may be guilty of many things, but failing to push for comprehensive health-care reform—as Bradley framed the accusation—is surely not one of them.) Was it campaign reform? Bradley opportunistically came to emphasize this issue, but I actually heard him tell an audience early on that it would not be a high priority in his first term. Was it moving the Democratic Party back solidly to the left? If so, this theme is also one that comes from nowhere in Bradley’s own political record.

When John McCain, in “suspending” his campaign, declared that he would “never walk away from” the “necessary cause of reform,” he could plausibly be taken to mean campaign-finance reform. But he intended—and was surely taken by supporters—to mean ever so much more. After all, despite the undoubtedly corrupt campaign-finance system, the four major candidates for the two party presidential nominations fought this race on a relatively equal footing: Bradley raised almost as much money as Gore, and McCain had “free media” help easily worth as much as Bush’s millions. And I wonder if the typical McCain voter can name a single example of an actual government policy perverted by campaign contributions. There are plenty of examples available, to be sure, but the hunger for “reform” that McCain tapped into is on a higher level of abstraction.

Bradley and (especially) McCain voters are now the Easter eggs for which everybody is hunting, like “soccer moms” in ‘96 and “Reagan Democrats” in ‘92. The media want their quotes; the candidates want their votes. Everyone wants their approval due to their apparently superior moral standards. But what do they want?

Here’s what they want: They want change. They want reform. They want a new politics. They want values and ideals. They want trust in the wisdom of the people. They want a positive message. They want an insurgent and/or a maverick.

Here’s what they don’t want: They don’t want politics as usual. They don’t want corruption. They don’t want negativity. They don’t want Washington or anything else inside the Beltway, including the establishment and the elite.

They are utterly dissatisfied with the slim pickings they are offered in the voting booth. Any system that comes up with Al Gore and George W. Bush is, to them, self-evidently flawed. Some people might observe that the choice between a moderate-conservative governor of a major state and a moderate-liberal sitting vice president should not be all that painful—that in fact this result reflects the machinery of a mature democracy functioning pretty smoothly. Everyone across the political spectrum, including those in the middle, will have someone reasonably compatible and qualified to vote for. The system producing this result may be bizarre or even corrupt but isn’t all bad. Some people might believe all this, but these people strongly disagree.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page looks at their rejection of two moderates and recommends feeding them a right-wing stew of tax cuts seasoned with school vouchers. The Nation says the way to their alienated little hearts is a diet of left-wing boilerplate. But these voters reject the traditional labels of left and right. That is the Old Politics. The New Politics is about …well, it’s about something else. Treat these folks right or they may not vote at all, just to teach you a lesson.

These are the Perot voters of ‘92 and the Newt Gingrich brigades in ‘94, or their heirs. They’re the people who demanded that no politician be permitted to serve his or her country in the same position for more than six years, who elected a string of new Congress members on this issue six years ago and are about to re-elect several for a seventh and eighth year of service.

They are, by and large, not poor or black, not unemployed or disabled. They are living through the most spectacular economic boom in history, in a nation almost totally secure, invulnerable, and at peace with the world. Science is curing major diseases. Yet another record-mild winter is ending. And they are furious at the politicians for creating this awful mess.

The Party of Inchoate Outrage seems to be a permanent feature of the political landscape. But there aren’t many people walking around with actual steam blowing out of their ears. For most, it’s just a convenient posture in a culture where it seems almost unpatriotic not to be politically alienated. Imagine the courage it would take to tell a pollster, “No, actually politics as usual is fine with me.” People say they want politicians they can look up to, and they probably do want one or two of these, for show. But they also want a general class of politicians they can look down on. An all-encompassing disgust with the whole filthy business is a way to claim your good-citizenship merit badge without earning it.