It's early yet, but so far the presidential race might fairly be
called PolicyFest 2000.
Since early May, both presumptive candidates have been pumping
out detailed positions on a range of important issues. Last week
alone, Vice President Al Gore talked about cancer research,
children's mental-health treatment, and protections for national
forests. Gov. George W. Bush weighed in with his own conservation
plan - standing in front of cool blue Lake Tahoe - while continuing
to promote big Social Security and arms-control proposals.
This season of substance can be partly explained by the
government surplus. Freed of fiscal constraints, Democrats and
Republicans can propose programs without appearing profligate.
Partly, it is driven by the candidates' desire to define
themselves before the other guy does it for them. Both want voters
to think of them as the choice with big ideas - whether those voters
have actually read all their multipoint plans or not.
Finally, an abundance of detail fills the need of new
communications technologies for content. When an Internet surfer
clicks on the "Positions" icon on a candidate Web site, the
appearance of "Under Construction" doesn't win too many supporters.
Messrs. Gore and Bush "have to have their positions up and
available in ways that candidates haven't in the past," says Calvin
Jillson, chairman of the political science department at Southern
Methodist University in Dallas.
Specificity about issues has not always been a hallmark of
presidential campaigns. In past years, candidates sometimes focused
more on trying to convey general impressions about their ability to
handle obviously important national problems, such as the cold war
or a recession.
Policy is sometimes not the first thing on a presumptive
candidate's mind in the preconvention period, anyway. At this point
in the 1988 election cycle, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was
preoccupied with handling a challenge from within his own party -
Even after his nomination, Governor Dukakis seemed to prefer
talking about what he had done in Massachusetts to what he would do
in the White House. He stood by while Vice President George Bush
painted him as a free-spender who was soft on crime. Dukakis's
double-digit lead in the polls evaporated.
Then came Bill Clinton. Both as a candidate and as president, Mr.
Clinton has demonstrated the popular appeal of leaping from one
symbolic issue to the next, however small. …