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LET'S SAY THAT THE THREE leading presidential candidates in 1996 are Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan. Is there a precise way to express what's obvious, which is that they are utterly different kinds of people?

The difference isn't background: Clinton and Dole both come from small-town, lower-middle-class Middle America. Buchanan, an accountant's son from the sleepy, segregated Washington of the 1940s, falls roughly into the same range as the other two. It isn't ideology either. Two of the three are Republicans, and two are moderates; we still don't have a clean division into three categories.

But what works precisely as a way to differentiate them is to say that they represent three different versions of success in America. The constant, bitter, obsessive competition among these ways of getting ahead defines not just this presidential campaign but much of American life.

Class, defined economically, doesn't work as an explicit political issue in this country, even now when the gap between rich and poor is indisputably widening. Americans are focused much more on a related but distinctly different issue from class. Let's call it paths. The U.S. is unusual for how widespread the preoccupation is with individual ambition. Classes are economic end points; paths are routes to success into which the population divides itself. In America it's the paths that hate one another, not the classes.

Of course, not every American is self-defined according to the particular form ambition takes. But most of us are, including many people a sociologist would define as working class or poor. It's hard to find a person who has never harbored some dream of socioeconomic ascent.

There are three main paths in the U.S. today: Talent, Lifer and Mandarin. It's possible to think of American politics as an epic power struggle among the three paths; in this year's presidential campaign, Buchanan is the Talent path's candidate, Dole is the Lifer path's, and Clinton is the Mandarin path's.

Talent is the oldest, the classic American path, made up of people who simply go out and engage in a self-initiated activity, hoping it will bring them money, status or acclaim. The yeoman farmers and skilled artisans of the colonial period are examples. Today people who start businesses are Talents. So are performers. The key to the Talent path is that it's unstructured. No formal credential, no passing through a rigidly defined series of stations of the cross, is required. Talent is the riskiest of the three paths but also the most rewarding. Most of the familiar, celebrated examples of success in America are Talents.

The Lifer path was established during the period between 1880 and World War II, when the raw, capitalist energy of the U.S. had to be harnessed through the creation of large organizations such as government bureaucracies and business corporations. Lifers join these organizations when they're just starting their careers and then try to rise through the ranks. The civil service, labor-union officialdom, the career military and General Motors are all Lifer strongholds. People on the Talent path have their fate decided when they come to market to sell themselves; the key moments for them are election days, championship games, initial stock offerings. Lifer careers, on the other hand, are all about getting promotions. Lifers tend to be invisible outside their organizations unless they get to the very top job; the only famous Lifers are people like corporate CEOS and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Mandarin path is the newest of the three. It was built during and after World War II, through the introduction of mass mental testing and the expansion of higher education. People become Mandarins by performing well in school; educational credentials, the more elite the better, are the coin of their realm. Theoretically, Mandarins are free to do whatever they want, including pursue the Talent or Lifer path. But the default activity for them is to go into limited-access fields where their degrees confer the maximum benefit, mainly the professions of law, medicine, academia and the Wall Street side of business. Mandarins aspire to get tenure in their 30s and thus be more protected from risk than the people on the other paths.

Practically speaking, what the Mandarins have done is take over a chunk of territory that was previously controlled by an inbred group of self-styled gentlemen called the Episcopacy. Their domains: Ivy League universities, the big foundations, Wall Street, major research hospitals and corporate law firms. Mandarins therefore congregate in big metropolises and on the two coasts. Although successful Mandarins have plenty of money and don't suffer from cripplingly low self-esteem, life has been mildly unfair to them. Often they find themselves serving merely as high-level advisers to Talents and Lifers--the Mandarin is usually the management consultant, not the chief executive--and they're the most disliked of the three groups. They tend to think they've earned their place in open competition ("meritocracy" is the Mandarins' name for their path), but outsiders think of them as privileged, conceited teacher's pets who are prone to concocting corrupt arrangements behind closed doors.

By definition all politicians are at least part Talent. They're willing to run for office, which is profoundly not a Lifer or Mandarin thing to do. This point was demonstrated most forcefully lately when Colin Powell, the ultimate Lifer, found that he just couldn't bring himself to run for President. The "passion and commitment" that he found lacking in himself are precisely the qualities that are required to get on the Talent path. Still, although some politicians are pure Talents (Ronald Reagan comes to mind), many belong spiritually to more than one path at the same time, and they connect strongly to voters' feeling about the paths.

George and Barbara Bush are part Episcopacy--they met as a result of being born into the same social class. Bill and Hillary Clinton are part Mandarin--they met in the library of Yale Law School. It could be argued that the Clintons are the first White House occupants who are pure products of the meritocratic machinery that makes Mandarins. Both grew up in provincial obscurity without any connections to the big time. Both, by their early 20s, had been clearly marked for membership in the Establishment by virtue of their accumulation of golden educational credentials. They filled their Administration with other Mandarins and, at least in the early going, tried to govern from the Mandarin mind-set, which is secular, rational and optimistic and seeks to solve problems by devising perfect systems run by experts.

Last year's revolt against the Clintons led by Newt Gingrich was all about the dislike, even hatred, that Talents and Lifers feel for Mandarins. Gingrich and some of his key lieutenants are failed Mandarins--recall that as a historian, Gingrich was denied tenure at a third-rank college--ho despise the Mandarin path for its air of self-satisfaction and for having been so blind to the abilities of Gingrich & Co. when young. When Gingrich rails against the corrupt "elite," he's talking about the Mandarins--and hitting a nerve. Mandarin resentment has enabled the Republican Party, whose home has always been in the upper half of the income distribution, to present itself successfully as the party of the little people.

If the Republican coalition is mainly made up of Talents and Lifers, then the Republicans' problem in 1996 is going to be preventing these two groups from beginning to squabble with each other. Constitutionally, Talents and Lifers are quite different types. Talents are individualistic; they tend to look upon untrammeled opportunity as the highest good. They're the opposite of mild mannered, and they are drawn to big, bold-relief political views such as the idea that taxation is theft or that abortion is murder. Lifers are conservative in the more literal sense of the word--they're not temperamentally disposed toward radical change. They have chosen to orient their life toward steadiness, loyalty and teamwork, so they put a high value on those qualities. Talents brag about wanting to destroy the system; Lifers like systems.

As much as a politician can be one, Bob Dole is a Lifer. He has represented Kansas in Congress continuously since 1960, sticking to it and through the years steadily moving upward. His virtues are the Lifer virtues of constancy, leadership, persistence and credit sharing. He is often charged with changing his views too readily. The honest answer to that, which he can never give, would be: Life isn't about what your views are; it's about what you get done. Having positions on issues, especially social issues like abortion and gay rights that aren't central to the ongoing work of the national government, is peripheral to a Lifer like Dole, so changing positions doesn't seem like that big a deal. What's central is running the government machinery well, which to the Lifer mind is essentially a nonideological job requiring toughness and taciturnity. Dole obviously far outranks Clinton in those departments, therefore by his own lights he's the most deserving of the presidency.

As a product of Catholic schools, Pat Buchanan has some Lifer proclivities: he can communicate with people who play by the rules and have traditional beliefs at their core. What he really is, however, is a Talent. His stints in government have been brief and confined to the White House staff, a Lifer-free environment. He has spent most of his life as a highly successful small businessman who designs, manufactures and distributes opinions. Buchanan is brilliant at giving voice to the idea that the big, organized forces in society--everybody from big corporations to the United Nations--are a kind of conspiracy against the Talent path. He's able to draw the line not between "government" and "business" but between all established forces, which have brought us everything from layoffs to arms-control agreements, and ordinary people who aren't wired into the system.

All the Republican candidates other than Dole are running as Talents, though most of them are only pretending. Lamar Alexander, whose official campaign persona as the angry outsider is practically see-through, is actually a Mandarin--can you imagine Buchanan ever having been president of a state university, as Alexander was? Steve Forbes is a child of the Episcopacy, having been raised in a manner modeled on the social practices of the British aristocracy in the 19th century: the family seat in the country, the character-building boarding-school education, going to work for Dad. But, having realized that you can't present yourself as a member of the Episcopacy these days, Forbes too has chosen to appear before the world as a Talent, burning with outrage over confiscatory tax rates.

The advantage Dole has is that voters who find him lacking in all these ways will find Clinton even more lacking. As indifferent as Dole is to the horrors of taxation, we all know that Clinton is more indifferent. As much as Dole lacks fiery moral outrage about abortion, Clinton obviously lacks it even more. Both men have devoted their adult life to government, with great skill; Dole probably wants there to be 5% less of it than Clinton does. If you have a Talent's feeling of outrage over the unfairness of the established system, the truth is that a Clinton-Dole race wouldn't offer you much of an outlet, but rationally Dole is probably the more logical choice.

What Clinton has going for him, besides incumbency, is a tremendous ability to project empathy. Dole completely lacks this. It's part of his Lifer-ness that he simply is what he is; any efforts he makes to pretend otherwise inevitably seem tinny and false. Clinton, on the other hand, comes across as a Mandarin to Mandarins, would do better than Dole in coming across as a Talent to Talents, and might even be able to seem more like "one of us" to Lifers if Dole didn't have his heroic military service to backstop himself with his natural constituency.

Mandarins as a group are at a crossroads right now. The system that produces them has matured. The proof is that Mandarins hold the White House. They have not, however, been able to generate a wide consensus around themselves as leaders, a general acceptance of them as a group that ought to be in charge--even though they've spent years being carefully, expensively trained for leadership roles. Almost the opposite of what was planned for the Mandarins has happened: the consensus is that they shouldn't be in charge. The Episcopacy, a much more elitist and less fairly chosen group, had far broader public support during its mid-century heyday.

Why are the Mandarins so unpopular? Partly because there's a sense among everybody else that they haven't earned what they have. The country is willing to celebrate rich entrepreneurs like Ross Perot and Bill Gates, but it isn't willing to accept that, say, someone's having won a Rhodes Scholarship is an achievement on the same scale, meriting the same deference. An equal difficulty for the Mandarins, but more correctable, is that they like to impose rules on the rest of the country that they don't have to play by. The best example is the Vietnam War, which the Mandarins dreamed up and then didn't fight in. Lifers and Talents see the Mandarins as being selectively compassionate--about racism and sexism and international human rights, but not crime or falling wages--and then creating remedies that affect everybody but them. The idea that (in the words of President Reagan) "government is the problem" is a proxy way of voicing the suspicion that the Mandarins are going to use government to assuage their consciences in a way that inconveniences everybody else.

Clinton, as the 1996 campaign begins, has a choice. He can try to confront his path's deficiencies head on, fix them, and thus get for the Mandarins the political legitimacy they now completely lack. Or he can pretend not to be one.

Nicholas Lemann, author of The Promised Land, is working on a book about success in America.