It has never been BUSINESS WEEK's practice to endorse political candidates, and we don't intend to break with that tradition now. But there are some lessons that can be drawn from the current campaign.
First of all, the campaign itself was highly interactive. By appearing on tv call-in shows and town-hall meetings, the candidates got voters more involved than usual. The second Presidential debate, in particular, showed that ordinary citizens, with their penetrating and intelligent questions, could force the candidates to discuss issues, not personalities. Granted, our economic problems tended to concentrate the mind wonderfully, but we'd like to think that the campaign itself has had something to do with the increase in voter registration this year.
Ross Perot earns our praise for almost single-handedly injecting that great unmentionable, the budget deficit, into the campaign dialogue. He talked about the pain the nation will have to endure, including higher income taxes and an unpopular but sensible gasoline tax, and raised some tough issues, such as airline mergers with foreign carriers and the health of the banking industry (below).
Bill Clinton has also run a singular Presidential campaign. It's the conventional view that Clinton got where he is today with centrist buzzwords, each one serving to drive a tiny wedge into an increasingly fragile GOP coalition. In fact, Clinton is the only candidate in the race with a comprehensive philosophy of economic growth in the 1990s. Clinton believes that a blend of public and private investment in education, training, health care, and technology will spur the U.S. economy's anemic growth rate and make the nation a stronger international competitor.
No one really knows if his plan to boost federal spending by $220 billion over four years will spur growth without hyping inflation. But Clinton has rejected increased social spending in favor of targeted investment in America's "knowledge base" that he hopes will produce a payoff in jobs, wages, and productivity. Too good to be true? Perhaps. But if he can deliver most of what he promises, he will have repositioned the Democratics as a more centrist party.
President Bush has provided some of the starkest lessons of the campaign. If he loses, pundits are likely to point to the August GOP convention as a turning point. To shore up his base, the President allowed the far right wing of his party to dominate the proceedings. The extremist message, delivered by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, was nasty and divisive on such isssues as immigration and "family values." By alienating many working women and calling for a ban on abortion even in cases of rape or incest, the GOP went farther than President Bush ever did. If he loses, the lesson will be clear: In chosing its President, America generally rejects political extremism, left or right.
More fundamental, of course, are America's economic difficulties. Despite a generally excellent record on foreign policy and the collapse of communism that occurred on his watch, the President seemed stunningly disengaged from economic problems. It wasn't just the recession, the layoffs, or the debt. It was also the feeling of many voters that he had lost touch with their painful everyday reality.
All three candidates deserve great credit for refusing the appeal to racial divisiveness. Perot said it most plainly: "If you hate people, I don't want your vote." The Democrats largely refrained from populist demagoguery. And from the GOP, there was no Willie Horton ad this time around and few code-word appeals to racial resentment. Some will conclude that this means the Republicans can't win without racial polarization. We prefer to hope that this society, getting more polyglot by the day, recognizes that its problems can be overcome only if we transcend ethnic differences and start fixing what is broke. This campaign, more high-minded than usual, may be a good portent.