As the 2000 campaign opens, presidential candidates are struggling
to define what they stand for. We are reminded of the 1980
campaign, when Carter and Reagan struggled over issues of
fundamental importance to the republic and neither had to take
extra measures to define where he stood; the pieces fell naturally.
Reagan's victory, in a way, made the presidency much less powerful
and important than it had been since 1932. The federal deficit
created during and after the Reagan years did not cripple the
economy, but it did cripple the ability of the federal government
to create new programs. The collapse of the Soviet Union didn't
abolish foreign policy, but foreign policy ceased to be a burning
issue. Since foreign issues are no longer pressing and since
Washington has lost the ability to create new programs, the
influence of Washington over the United States is in massive
decline. Therefore, the question of who presides over Washington
is of only marginal importance. The candidates are unable to
define where they stand on the issues not because they are cynical,
but because what Washington thinks about issues is not very
important these days. We are seeing the first pure post-Reagan
election: a competition for a post whose real power over American
life is enormously diminished.
The American presidential campaign has begun. The major
personalities that will shape the election have already emerged.
What has not emerged are the issues on which the campaign is going
to be fought. Indeed, what is striking about the campaign to this
point is not only that the dominant personalities have emerged so
early, but that it appears the personalities are going to have to
generate issues over which to disagree in order to differentiate
themselves from each other. The precise issues over which George
W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, Al Gore and Bill Bradley disagree cannot
be clearly perceived either in domestic or foreign policy. There
are candidates, particularly in the right wing of the Republican
Party, who retain clearly defined positions, but what is truly
striking is how little support or even interest they are able to
Something remarkable is going on. It is not, in our view, that
general national consensus has been achieved. Rather, what
appears to be happening is a growing indifference to both the
presidency and the federal government itself. The dearth of issues
reflects neither alienation of Americans from their society nor
indifference to the future of the country. Rather, the dearth of
issues in this election reflects the reality that the federal
government's ability to shape policies that affect American lives
has declined precipitously; therefore, the policy inclinations of
the person who will preside over the federal government is of
relatively little importance. Regardless of who is elected in the
year 2000, their ability to generate significant domestic and
foreign policies has so declined that debating policies has become
an exercise in pointlessness. American society is alive and
vibrantly dynamic, but the engine driving it has diffused across
the country. Put simply, what happens in Redmond, Washington, and
a hundred such places is much more important and interesting than
what happens in Washington, DC.
To put this in perspective, we should contrast the 2000 elections
with the 1980 elections. The issues dividing Carter and Reagan
were inescapable. The American economy was in terrible shape.
Inflation and the prime rate were both in double digits, as was
unemployment. In foreign policy, the United States, having been
defeated in Vietnam just five years before, had also suffered
massive defeat in Iran, where the staff of the American Embassy had
been taken hostage. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and
appeared poised to drive for the Persian Gulf. Terrorism was
searing Western Europe, where neutralist, anti-nuclear and
anti-American sentiment was on the rise. The Japanese economy was
moving into high gear, penetrating American markets in numerous
areas of technology and driving U.S. manufacturers out of the
market. Commodity prices remained at extraordinary levels and
shortages of gasoline were common.
The issues in the 1980 election revolved around this question: was
the United States now in permanent decline? Jimmy Carter, who had
made a famous speech about America's "malaise," seemed of the view
that the United States had entered an era of scarcity, social and
economic dysfunction, and the limits of its power in foreign
policy. Carter emphasized the complexity of the problems facing
the United States and the likelihood that many of the problems
facing the country could not be easily solved and that some of
them, like the shortage of natural resources, might never be
Ronald Reagan argued that the problems of the 1970s were not rooted
in the natural condition of the United States but in policy
decisions that had been in place certainly since the 1960s and
possibly since the 1930s. On domestic policy, Reagan argued that a
tax reduction and simplification of the tax system was essential
for the stimulation of capital formation. In addition, Reagan
argued that a massive program of deregulation was needed and that
this, along with massive tax cuts designed to encourage investment
rather than consumption, would give rise to a wave of
entrepreneurial activity that would transform the economy.
In foreign policy, Reagan argued that Carter had fundamentally
misunderstood the Soviets, both morally and strategically.
Morally, Carter's argument that we had an "inordinate fear of
communism" was rejected by Reagan, who argued that communism was
morally degenerate and had to be vigorously opposed.
Strategically, Reagan asserted that the Soviet Union represented a
geopolitical threat to American interests, but that the United
States had the resources not only to contain that threat, but to
defeat it. Reagan argued that a more assertive foreign policy,
coupled with massive increases in military expenditures on new
technologies, could transform the global strategic equation.
Carter countered that Reagan's understanding of the problems
confronting the American economy were both simplistic and
dangerous. Tax cuts and deregulation would not only not stimulate
the economy, but would cripple it by creating huge deficits. In
foreign policy, Carter argued, the essential mission was to find a
basis for reconciliation with the Soviet Union, rather than to
intensify the Cold War. Increased defense expenditures would only
cripple the American economy while triggering an arms race that
neither side could win. The Soviet Union, Carter argued, was a
permanent geopolitical fixture that could not be abolished and
therefore had to be accommodated.
The issues on which the 1980 election was fought did not have to be
found or generated by strategists. They were manifest in the
moment. Moreover, the pressing issues facing the country taxes
and defense were all issues over which Washington had control.
It mattered deeply who won the election. Indeed, the 1980 election
was, like 1932, a defining moment in American politics that would
shape what came after it. Consider: when Dwight Eisenhower was
elected as the first Republican president in a generation, he
remained trapped in the paradigm created by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Whatever policy shifts he might have wished, the legacy of the New
Deal left him little room for fundamental change. Rhetoric aside,
Eisenhower was trapped by Roosevelt's policy decisions. Similarly,
Bill Clinton, elected 12 years after Reagan, was trapped in
Reagan's paradigm. Regardless of what Clinton wished, he was unable
to reverse or even substantially change Reagan's paradigm. He was
limited by circumstances. He was also limited in mindset. When
Clinton proposed the federalization of medical care, the country
considered it and then recoiled. Increasing the power of the
federal government had no more appeal under Clinton than increasing
state's rights had under Eisenhower.
Under Reagan, the geometry of American public life had changed
fundamentally. Reagan's policies did result in massive federal
deficits, just as his critics had predicted. But the deficits did
not crowd out private borrowing, driving interests rates up. Quite
the contrary, interest rates fell dramatically when compared to the
1970s and have remained extraordinarily low even a decade after he
left office. The reasons for this are complex, and many of the
most important have nothing to do with Reagan's policies. For
example, the massive decline in world commodity prices began well
before his policies had any effect. The massive economic
dislocations of the 1970s compelled large corporations to
restructure in such a way as to provide openings to smaller
start-ups. New technologies, many spawned by government programs
in the 1960s and 1970s, drove the economy in new directions. As in
most things, impersonal social forces had more to do with the
course of history than decisions by political leaders.
Nevertheless, the general direction Reagan moved the country helped
facilitate changes that President Carter had thought were
There were two vital changes that Reagan helped advance. The first
was to cripple the federal government. Federal deficits did not
affect the general economy the way Reagan's critics claimed they
would. But it did effectively drain the federal government of the
ability to launch new programs. By redirecting resources into
defense spending while simultaneously cutting taxes, Reagan
crippled the federal government as an instrument of social change.
The economy didn't go broke, but Washington did. The only serious
battling was over what cuts to impose on social programs.
Washington became effectively irrelevant in social policy.
The second change was the destruction of the Soviet Union. We
debate endlessly whether Reagan's defense build-up cracked the
Soviet economy apart or whether it would have fallen on its own.
The very least that can be said was that the arms race imposed by
Reagan did not help the Soviet economy one bit. It certainly
contributed to its demise to some extent. What can also be said
with certainty is that on Reagan's watch, the Soviet Union went
from the aggressively assertive power it was in 1980 to a bare
shadow of itself.
Now, let's consider these two things together. Under Reagan, two
processes were put into place. Domestically, the president became
relatively impotent. Since there was no money in the budget for
new programs, both the president and Washington in general lost
tremendous power over the course of the domestic economy. It was
NASDAQ, not NASA, that shaped the generation. In the arena of
foreign policy, the collapse of the Soviet Union made foreign
affairs less important to the United States than it had been at any
time since the early 1930s. Rather than the centerpiece of national
life and fears, foreign policy became a side show of random events,
unconnected to the daily lives of the people.
Franklin Roosevelt had made the federal government the central
engine of American life. From 1932 until 1980, the Federal
government had a profound and direct effect on the personal lives
of Americans. From social security to student loans, from being
drafted into the Army to the danger of nuclear war, the federal
government defined and redefined the experience of everyday life.
What happened in Washington mattered fundamentally and directly.
Who was elected President and what he did also mattered.
From 1980 onward, it mattered less and less who was elected
President. Even with the much-vaunted surplus, the government is
not about to undertake radical new social programs; the national
sensibility won't allow it. Without a foreign threat of epic
proportions, such as Hitler or Brezhnev, there will be occasional
random conflicts without coherent explanation nor lasting effect,
but none of them will change the daily lives of Americans.
The dearth of issues in the 2000 campaign has to do with the
extraordinary powerlessness both of the American presidency and of
Washington in general. For fifty years, American history was made
in Washington. Today, power has diffused from Washington in
general and from government. The diffusion of power has been
facilitated by the lack of a serious foreign threat. All of the
candidates are struggling to find issues in a vacuum of public
indifference driven by the fact that Washington just isn't in
control any longer; the policies the policies the candidates
propose or oppose are matters of monumental insignificance.
One of the reasons that Clinton's behavior was tolerated by so many
Americans was not that he was doing a good job, but that it didn't
matter very much who held the job. No one worried about Clinton's
ability to make split-second decisions about war and peace, or his
ability to solve pressing social issues. Reagan had redefined the
structure of American governance in such a way that the presidency
mattered relatively little. For many, it seemed to follow that the
character of the president did not matter. That's why the
paradoxical answer of the American public was that Clinton was
indeed morally reprehensible but that he should remain in office.
This is also why the response to Clinton differed so dramatically
from the response to Nixon. Nixon held the fate of the nation in
his hand. Clinton did not.
It is unclear how long Reagan's legacy will last. Roosevelt's
lasted until the massive capital shortages of the 1970s required a
restructuring of the American economy and until the last
ideological monster of the twentieth century was destroyed. We
suspect the current situation to be somewhat shorter. As baby
boomers start cashing in their 401K plans, interest rates will rise
once again. As the world forms coalitions against the United
States, threats to national security will increase. All things
end. This period will too.
But this much is clear: the elections of the year 2000 are the
first mature, post-Reagan elections. Americans are aware they are
electing a president who has less power, less control in American
daily lives, and less influence in important issues a president who
simply matters less than at any time since the 1920s. If even the
candidates can't find fundamental issues to debate, it is unlikely
that Americans will take the choice all that seriously. The
election will turn on the issue of leadership, since the presidency
remains a bully pulpit. Leadership without definitive power is
difficult to exercise. It is reminiscent more of constitutional
monarchs than of the influential presidents we had become used to.
Ronald Reagan, by design or accident, took away that power from the
American presidency. Until the market crashes or a foreign enemy
arises, it just doesn't much matter who the next president is.
That is why candidates leap ahead effortlessly without anyone
knowing what they stand for. It doesn't matter all that much what
policies they support. What matters is whether the public will
find their voice and demeanor tolerable over the next four or eight