A Campaign Year with Substance ; Bush and Gore Are Talking Policy More Than Most Past Presidential Candidates

Article excerpt

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 - Jesse Jackson.

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. …