Read' em now: the top stories of the next campaign

November 06, 1996|By NEIL A. GRAUER

''Well, in our country,'' said Alice, still panting a little, ''you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time as we've been doing.''

''A slow sort of country!'' said the Queen. ''Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.''

''Through the Looking-Glass'' ARE YOU SAD OR GLAD that this year's presidential campaign finally is over?

Are you a political junkie who couldn't get enough of the candidates' machinations and the pundits' analyses of them; or were you rendered catatonic by it all?

Either way, you have reason to rejoice -- or recoil. Four years from now, you are sure to be treated again to many of the golden oldies that either delighted or dismayed you this time around.

Like Alice and the Red Queen, our presidential campaigns seem to run furiously along only to stay in the same place. They have become like the 17-year cicadas: They'll emerge from the ground, make a noise, then disappear, leaving behind progeny that will pop up four years hence and do the same thing.

Safe bets

Want a preview of the ''major'' stories of the next presidential campaign? Here are a few sure-fire predictions:

Much will be made of Campaign 2000 being ''the first presidential election of the 21st century'' (annoying those nit-pickers who insist that the century doesn't begin until 2001).

The press will expend enormous energy covering the New Hampshire primary, all the while disparaging New Hampshire as a small, totally unrepresentative state in which the primary vote, while the first, essentially is meaningless.

The winners of the New Hampshire primary nevertheless will get their pictures on the covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report, thus giving New Hampshire all the ''meaning'' (that is, publicly value) it needs.

Crucial, but empty

The fights over the Republican and Democratic party platforms will be covered fully -- even though the platforms themselves will be characterized as empty, ideological blather that the party nominees can feel free to ignore if they wish.

The nominating conventions, while possibly less stultifying than this year, still will be anticlimactic confirmations of the results of multiple primaries. The conventions will be dismissed as ''scripted'' shows created only for television.

These lamentations will be voiced by reporters who have no personal recollections of any conventions that weren't predetermined, ''scripted'' TV events. (The last conventions to go beyond one ballot were in 1952.)

A valuable pay-off

There will be much talk about discontinuing such ''useless, scripted'' conventions by commentators who know that the conventions will endure because they remain an immensely valuable social and political pay-off for the party faithful and offer a grand opportunity for special-interest lobbyists to press the flesh.

Stories will note that the television networks are refusing to provide ''gavel-to-gavel'' convention coverage (which they haven't provided for years anyhow), and the networks will grouse that they are losing money by covering the conventions even minimally. But the TV networks and their star anchors still will be there in their glitzy booths on the odd chance that something could happen.

Despite the scaled-back convention coverage, there will be plenty of camera shots of people in silly hats. There also will be many campaign photo opportunities featuring red, white and blue balloons -- and stories about how these events are just photo ops.

It's just that simple

Commentators and average citizens will yearn for a viable, ''grass-roots'' third-party movement to challenge the ''politics-as-usual'' of the tottering big two. If spared the reaper's scythe, Ross Perot will reappear with pie charts to explain how really simple it is to solve intractable problems.

The candidates will be depicted as striving mightily to avoid the ''mistakes'' of the 1996 campaign -- while making others.

Almost no position taken by any candidate will be viewed as an expression of principle; rather, every statement and gesture will be judged solely on its strategic merits.

And voters, it will be said with sadness, have become ''cynical.''

Key issues are certain to be ''cutting taxes,'' ''balancing the budget,'' ''care for the elderly,'' ''saving Social Security,'' ''crime,'' ''campaign-finance reform,'' ''maintaining a strong defense'' and ''welfare.''

Almost all these subjects have been raised in every presidential campaign since 1960 -- and will be raised again.

Loaves and fishes

The candidates will promise to lower taxes and simultaneously reduce the deficit while increasing government programs -- but no one will ever explain in detail how they will manage this loaves-and-fishes miracle.

The amount of campaign money raised and the skyrocketing costs of campaigning will be deplored.

Right after Election Day 2000, commentators will complain about the perpetual nature of our presidential campaigns -- often in articles that speculate about the potential candidates for 2004.

Neal A. Grauer is author of ''Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber.'' He lives in Baltimore and actually likes presidential campaigns.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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