JUST DON'T BORE ME! | 1999-11-06

In my short piece for March 20, called "BOOOORING!," I pointed out an important secret of American politics. In the media age, you have to FIGHT for attention. If you spend all your time trying to look respectable and middle of the road, you are going to lose. You are going to lose because you are BORING.

Moderates look good in the polls and lose elections because they are BORING. Every four years, the moderate Republican looks good in the polls at first, but by election time, his prospects have collapsed. Four years ago, in late 1995, the polls had Robert Dole crushing President Bill Clinton in a one-on-one race. Eight years ago, in late 1991, the polls had President Bush crushing candidate Bill Clinton in the general election.

At this point in the election cycle -- a year before the election -- some moderate Republican candidate is far out in front of the Democrat in the polls, just as Bush is ahead of Gore right now. The Republicans believe the polls, and nominate him. Then, come election day, he barely gets forty percent. This happened with Bush in 1992. This happened with Dole in 1996. This will happen with Bush Junior in 2000. It will happen again in 2004.

The main reason for this is that Republicans simply cannot understand the killing power of BOREDOM.

There was a time in the last century when everybody looked forward to the day when the political campaign came to town. You would hitch up the horses and take the kids to town to see the candidates. In the 1800s, you would listen for HOURS while the candidates talked. But those days are over. Only the Republican moderates do not realize that those days are over.

At this point in the electoral cycle, people take a very low-key approach to an election that is, after all, still a year away. At this point, if a pollster asks people who they would be willing to vote for, they will generally choose somebody whose general position may be accurately described as "harmless." So they generally pick someone whose entire aim is to appear harmless and vaguely neutral on most hot issues. That is the definition of moderate Republicanism. But in the heat of the final lap of the presidential race, when the competition is intense and emotions high, this preference changes radically.

Even when there is no election on the horizon, every voter has an endless number of people trying to get his attention. There's cable, there's the Internet, and competing with those are all the older forms of time-users -- newspapers, books, clubs. The modern voter is deluged long before any political campaign starts.

And when the campaign starts, it's everywhere. On top of the fact that the competition for everybody's attention is already fierce, dozens of different campaigns start fighting for the public eye and ear.

Into the middle of this storm marches the moderate, with his thundering cry of "Well, sort of."

The competition for attention in our day is the ultimate competition. It determines who gets power and who gets rich. The stakes are enormous. It is bloody and hard. Very few people in Republican politics seem to have noticed this. Your first problem is not to be respectable. Your first problem is not to be ignored.

In this environment, the Reform Party has an opportunity similar to the one it blew when Perot dropped out in 1992. I do NOT mean that they have a good chance to WIN this election. But they have a chance to become THE major third party.

The Reform Party has this chance because, in the Communications Age, they are the only party which is not BORING. What a SHOW! Pat Buchanan, who always causes sparks, against a media showcase billionaire! The Reform Party is the only game in town!

In this three cornered match, just look who is in the other two corners. You have the Republicans, with Bush and McCain battling to be the liberals' favorite conservative. Both are using the liberal mantra about "getting the minority vote." Neither ever says anything but the old knee-jerk stuff about more troops and less government. And it is understood that, if one of them does get elected, he will cave in on these issues like all the other Republicans do.

As for the really important issues that may raise some sparks, like immigration, Republicans will simply ignore them from the get-go.

So what kind of excitement do the Democrats and Republicans together have to offer the public for Election 2000?

The one thing that might make the millennium worth while is waiting for the Ultimate Political Thrill. The Ultimate Political Thrill, of course, will be listening to the Bush-Gore Presidential Debates. Now, there are two of the truly dynamic personalities in the national arena. The Democrats have finally managed to get a candidate who is as boring as the me-too Republican!

As with the Republicans, there is no serious policy debate on the Democratic side. Just as McCain and Bush are both trying to act like conservatives while pleasing liberals, both Bradley and Gore are both liberals trying to look like moderates.

By a contrast so total as to be described as "wild," the Reform Party offers an exciting but politically vague and amateurish Donald Trump against Pat Buchanan. In terms of excitement, the Reform Party has it all. It will get the attention. In politics, attention is critical.

If the Reform Party does not self-destruct in this confrontation of extremes, it can become the center of national attention. The result would be a surprisingly large vote in November and a permanent position among the major players in American politics. Their job then will be to stay in there while one of our two superfluous political parties self-destructs and leaves room for them.