- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2000

On Jan. 24, 1712, King Frederick the Great of Prussia was born. On Jan. 24, 2000, Al Gore and George Bush won their respective Iowa caucuses. This latter Jan. 24 seems the less auspicious of the two dates. While the future is unknowable, on the evidence before us to date, neither Messrs. Gore nor Bush seem likely soon to claim Frederick's sobriquet.
After Iowa it is all too obvious that the November elections will be a contest between a pleasant chap who wants to be president for no good reason, and an unpleasant chap who wants to be president for no good reason (in the interest of impeccable neutrality, I will leave it the reader to decide whether the unpleasant chap is the soft-spoken, Texas gent with a twinkle in his eyes or the screeching, Tennessee demagogue who just had a personality transplant.)
Of course, to hear most of the pundits, anchors and analysts, we have two really exciting primary races ahead of us. Will Bill Bradley, who had more doctor's appointments than votes in Iowa, revamp his campaign (which is to say after two years of planning, will he suddenly come up with some plausible reason why anyone would vote for him) and surge to victory in New Hampshire next week? Will Steve Forbes parlay his second-place showing in Iowa into an unbroken string of upset victories in states in which he has no detectable campaign, culminating in his gaining the Republican nomination?
On caucus night, Mr. Forbes, on the strength of getting fewer self-identified "conservative" Republican votes than Mr. Bush, but more than Alan Keyes, claimed the title of the conservative alternative to Mr. Bush. In fact, based on the votes, Mr. Bush would seem to be the conservative alternative to Mr. Bush. As he also got the most self-identified "not conservative" votes, he also would appear to be the strongest moderate alternative to himself. Which is a long way of saying there is no alternative to Mr. Bush.
Meanwhile in this pantomime campaign, Sen. John McCain smiled into the cameras caucus night in Iowa to pronounce himself just tickled pink with his miserable fifth-place showing behind Messrs. Bush, Forbes, Keyes and Bauer. Sen. McCain claimed his success because since he was afraid to run in Iowa, Mr. Bush's stomping victory over him didn't count. That is like Belgium's claiming that Germany's invasion and occupation didn't count because Belgium proclaimed itself neutral.
Carrying this idiotic expectations game to the point of dementia, former Sen. Bradley announced shortly before the vote that he would consider 31 percent a moral victory because that was what some other losing candidate once got in Iowa. A number of television reporters actually reported this eccentric assertion as if it meant something.
What it all means is that, short of some grievously self-inflicted wound by Mr. Bush or Vice President Gore, they are it. So, let's look back at one of the oddest things that happened along the campaign trail, before we get swept up in the thrill of the general-election campaign (which actually, though not nominally, started about 9 p.m. Monday.)
Surely the strangest and most ominous event of the primary campaign was the success of Mr. Gore's attack on Mr. Bradley's health policy. Mr. Bradley was running to Mr. Gore's left on health issues, promising more money and bigger programs. Mr. Gore pulled from his files the Clinton/Gore attack plan that they successfully used against the House Republicans in 1995-1996. But the Republican plan was a market-oriented, less costly, right-of-center proposal.
The essence of the Clinton/Gore attack was the assertion that the public should pay no attention to the details of the proposed change in health policy. Any change in current policy of Medicare/Medicaid was reckless, cruel, extreme and dangerous to the old folks. Not surprisingly, many people succumbed to the fear campaign against the Republicans.
But that the same status-quo argument would work with equally lethal effect on the liberal Democrat Bradley is a disappointing revelation. It suggests that although every health policy expert from CATO to the Brookings Institute agrees that the programs must be changed, in some way, if they are to survive the retirement of the boomers, fear of change will trump reasonable change every time. If Mr. Gore can convince relatively well-informed Democratic voters in Iowa that fellow Democrat Bill Bradley's overly generous spending on health care risks leaving the old folks on ice floes to die, what chance do we have to make needed changes?
While Mr. Gore won by saying almost anything that seemed useful, Mr. Bush won by saying almost nothing. Mr. Bush's winning, if laconic, slogan is: "If I can lead Texas, I can lead the U.S.A. Why if the U.S.A. were a state, it would be just a little bigger than Texas." This race is shaping up to look like a fight between Elmer Gantry and Gary Cooper. After Bill Clinton, the country just may be in the mood for the strong silent type.

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