It's Curtains for This Spring's Political Drama

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It was fun while it lasted. John McCain and Bill Bradley assailed the established favorites with "new" programs, with cries for reform and whispered misgivings about their opponents' supporters. It was the year 2000 revival of a fine American classic script, and it played well for a while, then came to an abrupt halt. George Bush and Al Gore romped over the upstarts in the early results on Tuesday, appearing to put an end to the suspense and drama (or pseudo-drama) and sentencing us all to an eight-month campaign between the heavily programmed duo. As of 10 p.m. Tuesday night, Bush had beaten McCain in five of the Tuesday's 13 GOP primaries, giving himself a delegate lead of about 397 to 179. Gore was even better, having taken all of the day's primaries in the same period.

So it seems we are left with a short first act, no meaningful second act, and just a few impressions of the characters: that Bush seemed expertly able to keep the faith with mainstream Republicans, but didn't make inroads into the political middle. That if Al Gore had really captured the imagination of Democrats and independents, why did so many wander into the Republican primaries to vote for McCain? That McCain did indeed conjure a yearning for freshness and outspokenness in our psyches, and that Bill Bradley was a great basketball player, a fine senator and a citizen with an admirable conscience.

It is a national tradition to be fair — even wishful — about underdogs because of our conviction that democracy depends on the will of the voters and that big money shouldn't distort the process. The media encourage this wishfulness because a good fight attracts an audience. But after Tuesday night, barring a howling scandal or a bus accident, this fair-mindedness simply becomes foolish titillation. The front-loading of the primary system, which squeezes a decisive bunch of primaries into February and early March, plus the dominance of television ads purchased by big money, has turned the stately nomination process into a half-wrought runt of its former self.

Our national political drama, remember, has traditionally come in three acts: primaries, conventions and general elections. But the primaries are now grouped early in the season, while the hot dynamics of the electronic age reduce them, over a period of a decisive few weeks, to a blur of media impressions, a smearing of hot issues and a spate of mock-angry accusations in "debates" — by adults who hope to lead the nation — that the opponent's mother wears army boots. It is not all bad. The conventions — great countrywide pep rallies — will come in summer's heat, and the long campaign will subject both candidates to the kinds of pressures and scrutiny that in the end serve the country well. But the nominating process, which has seemingly approved the status quo with such finality, might stand some tuning as this new century progresses.