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Jewish World Review March 14, 2000 /7 Adar 2, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Here Are the Answers, More or Less -- AND SO, MORE OR LESS, -- that's a useful phrase in scorched pundit-land these days, right up there with "traction," ends the campaign for the nominations of America's two major political parties. It will be Bush versus Gore. Several central questions now arise, some retrospective, some prospective.

Long-talked about, mightily controversial, the functional equivalent to America's first national primary has arrived, more or less. How did it work out? Should it be expanded? Looking ahead: Is there a third political shoe yet to drop? And oh, yes, who will be the next President?

Never before have so many American states held presidential primaries on a single day, so early in the election year. The new "front-loaded" system successfully did it's big thing well, that is, provide for the selection of the major party candidates, in a way that is seen to be fair, more or less. The longer I've been around politics the more apparent it has become to me that it's not who is elected, but that voters think they played a serious role in the process. That tends to prevent nuisances like revolutions or civil war, let alone a further decline in NBA attendance.

The big argument against the highly variegated front-loaded system focused on the idea that it would lock out lesser-known and under-financed candidates, who couldn't raise recognition or money in time for Super-T. That did not prove correct. Three months ago neither John McCain nor Bill Bradley were household words. And neither ended up losing because of lack of money; Bradley actually raised more cash than did Vice President Gore.

Moreover, the campaign generated excitement, which brought out big primary turnouts, which are usually pathetically low. That is good news, more or less. The bad news is that when Super Tuesday voting occurred fully a third of Americans still hadn't had a chance to vote. Both parties now have commissions investigating the possibility of changing the crazy-quilt primary process (open, closed, semi-open, semi-closed as well as Iowa-style Stalingrad caucuses.)

Good luck to them! The simple answer to the existing problem seems elemental: Without being forced into line by professional political cookie-cutters, more of the state parties should independently adopt the Super Tuesday primary date. In an ideal situation there would continue to be several early primaries, perhaps rotating among the states, giving unknown candidates a chance to establish themselves. Those early races would be followed by a massive Super Tuesday which would likely grow in popularity and turnout as it became regularized. If the matter were still too close there would be a few follow-up state contests as well, also likely chosen on a rotating basis. (After all, we've got fifty of them!)

Further, the variegation of the state primary rules offered little trouble. Different states sent different messages. The fellows who thought up federalism had a good idea, that still works, more than less.

The downside of the campaign so far had little to do with front-loading. Yes it was exciting at times, but it also got ugly, negative and stupid, on both sides. (Do they think we're jerks?) Both parties will have the negative sound-bites they want: McCain saying that Bush is a sleazy "Pat Robertson Republican" and Bradley calling Gore a pathological liar, more or less. (Of course Bradley also kindly charged that Gore was a closet conservative, eek! with Gore complaining all the way into the centrist briar patch.)

Now, will a third party candidate muddy the waters later this year? This is a call for John McCain to make, and it might prove to be a devilish one. He has said he would support Bush and wouldn't run on a third party ticket, but he now a small loophole has emerged, i.e. that Bush will have to change his campaign tactics in order for McCain to endorse him. Bush's large national victory has made it difficult for McCain to establish a serious third party rationale for a candidacy, but not impossible. By my lights, it would be unlikely for McCain to win such a race, but not impossible. The more likely result would be to jeopardize the election of George Bush, and set up a more-or-less cheap win by Al Gore, who McCain still sees as a drum upon which to bang.

If McCain does not opt to run, who will the next President be? I would think George W. Bush. Both Gore and Bush received heavy doses of negative publicity, but Gore's came earlier when there was less attention being paid. That should help Gore, but notwithstanding the recent negative publicity about Bush, he has still been running even or slightly ahead of Gore in national pairings. Bush will likely gain back some lost ground now, and keep it. Is that a prediction? More or less.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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