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Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2000 /5 Adar I, 5760

Tony Snow

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Flush times make for lousy politics

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- TWO REALITIES shape the political landscape this year: We find ourselves smack in the middle of the Giddy Decade -- a time of unimagined economic growth, global prosperity and progress at home. And this windfall comes just as Baby Boomers -- the Vicarious Generation -- are approaching the apogee of their power and prestige.

These facts produce some interesting consequences. For beginners, flush times make for lousy politics. Office-seekers traditionally feast off human misery by inflaming people's desires for what they lack and promising to provide more of it for free. But we lack the requisite measures of grief and envy. There's just not enough hardship to sustain any ambitious policy crusades.

One sees this phenomenon most keenly in the GOP presidential sweepstakes. While Democrats gas on about spending money and saving civilization, Republicans are mired in dull discussions about debt reduction -- the sort of stuff Robert Taft tried to peddle 48 years ago -- and vacuous cant about whose reformist impulse is bigger.

John McCain wants to pay down the debt. George W. Bush wants to do the same thing while cutting taxes and applying the balm of conservative compassion. (Steve Forbes wants to make money again.) John McCain wants to reform. So does Bush.

The campaign abounds in cosmetic touches. McCain has reached out to Democrats and Independents by projecting an image of crusty iconoclasm. Bush hopes to expand the not-so-big tent to include more women, blacks and Hispanics. Both are spreading their gospel through slogans and symbols -- "breaking the iron triangle of lobbyists, money and legislation" or "reach out to every willing heart."

There is no beef, and voters don't seem to care. Even tax cuts, which once sent GOP activists into paroxysms of ecstasy, have lost their appeal. As economist/columnist Bruce Bartlett has pointed out repeatedly, Americans worry less about taxes these days than about P/E ratios, stock offerings and NASDAQ's 12-month growth rate.

And here's where things get interesting. The Clinton prosperity produced a side-effect nobody expected. It exposed the federal government as a creaky, lumbering irrelevance. Uncle Sam has no clue about the New Economy, and most people have come to the conclusion that the federal government is hopelessly outgunned in its quest to gum up the private sector. Capitalism moves too swiftly these days.

So do ideas. Union-run public schools are racing toward the dustbin of history. Ditto for federally controlled social services. Even though it costs more than ever before, government increasingly strikes us less as a menace than a museum piece.

Without foreign threats, domestic unrest or an avalanche of "unmet needs," it's tough to get people excited about weighty issues. Therefore, personalities dominate.

But the Baby Boomer wrinkle adds another surprise. The Vicarious Generation contains fewer heroes than any cohort in American history. Most of us Baby Boomers got our culture from television, our opinions from Hollywood and our morals from whatever feel-good faddist was atop the New York Times best-seller list. The hardest times any of us have faced were mini-slumps in the '50s and '70s.

We grew up cocky and spoiled. Our intellectual and political elites only now are realizing that they may not have possessed perfect political knowledge when they took their bachelor's degrees a quarter-century ago. They have discovered that draft-dodging was not a form of heroism; the sexual revolution was fun only when it didn't involve our children; and mind-altering drugs didn't expand minds, but extinguished them.

Baby Boomers not only have buyer's remorse about the Clinton presidency, but about their own early adulthood. This explains why reporters are drooling over the a man who took a pounding in Vietnam while reporters were burning their draft cards. The fawning has become a source of embarrassment, but it also has become something of an addiction -- one more shot of vicariousness.

The press trends to treat politicians like rock stars. Bush got his moment in the sun last spring and summer. Bill Bradley got two weeks in January. Now, McCain's the one. But sooner or later, reporters get bored and lower their former idols into the wood chipper.

At that point, and not before, the races will gain the gravity they so desperately need. Voters eventually will have to examine each candidate's biography, ideology, policy and public record. And on the Republican side, they will have to pose tough questions -- including the one Bush and McCain haven't dared ask each other: How can the GOP keep the good times rolling?

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