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If one were to judge from the current presidential campaign, one could only conclude that our current age marks a new end of ideology. Indeed, we sometimes seem to have arrived at the end of politics. Not since the 1950s”when the end of ideology was first proclaimed”have we witnessed a campaign so apparently devoid of substantive differences between the major parties.

It began with the conventions. The Republicans, spooked by the widespread assumption that the 1992 Houston convention had scared off moderates, constructed in San Diego a Potemkin village populated almost entirely”aside from Bob Dole and Jack Kemp themselves”by women and minorities, all of them determined not to frighten the horses or to disturb the electorate by intrusion into their consciousness of any ideas whatever. They filled the void of ideas with a whole lot of caring and concern, so much so that Maureen Dowd of the New York Times observed that the traditional division of labor between the parties”the Democrats as the softer (mommy) party, the Republicans as the sterner (daddy) party”had been obscured by the GOP conversion to maternal tenderness. The problem is that nobody needs two mothers, and no political system needs two parties playing the same role.

The Democrats alternated mommy politics with the politics of bathos. Thus we had the extraordinary spectacle of an opening session dominated by Jim and Sarah Brady demonstrating in Jim’s continuing handicaps the evils of handguns, and Christopher Reeve, the crippled Superman, demonstrating in his wheelchair . . . well, it was hard to tell what he was demonstrating or what he was doing there. Al Gore, known as a wooden speaker, attempted to compensate”as he had in 1992“with a sentimental personal appeal. Four years ago, he indulged himself in a maudlin narrative about the near-death of his young son in a traffic accident. This year, he went on at painful length and in inappropriate detail about the death of his sister from cigarette smoking. He would have done better to stick with boring. (The Republicans told sob stories of their own, but not at the top of the ticket.)

At both conventions red-meat rhetoric”or ideological politics of any sort”was at a premium. The Republicans forgot all about the Contract With America and raised the question of abortion only to assure everyone that they meant nothing serious by it. One of their best”if also most controversial”speakers, Newt Gingrich, was reduced to banalities about beach volleyball and the GOP’s high concern for small children. (Republicans and Democrats alike testified, with fearless unconcern for those who think otherwise, that Our Children Are Our Future and that nothing is too good for the little buggers.) The Democrats similarly minimized anything that might prove offensive. Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson roused the faithful with recollections of liberal enthusiasms past, but did so safely outside prime time. When the network cameras were on, there was nobody here but us moderates.

The campaign proceeds accordingly. Bob Dole pushes two issues: a 15 percent tax cut and the question of character. The President opposes the tax plan, but on grounds of prudence, not principle. He invokes Republican values of fiscal responsibility against the breadth of Dole’s proposed cut, even while offering various smaller cuts of his own. On character, Dole hopes to contrast his own presumed abundance of it with Clinton’s presumed lack of it. The issue may or may not play”so far it seems not to have”but in any case it has nothing to do with ideology.

The President, meanwhile, continues the practice of minimalist politics he has followed so successfully since the Republicans swept to victory in the congressional elections of 1994. Under the shrewd guidance of the now”departed Dick Morris, he has taken one issue after another away from the GOP. He has announced the end of the era of big government, signed the welfare”reform bill, accepted the notion of a balanced budget, taken a tough line on crime, and decided that, on second thought, he raised taxes too high at the beginning of his presidency. In the wake of perceived Republican extremism, he has taken possession of the political center.

With so many traditional GOP issues neutralized, and with a healthy economy giving the incumbent a large initial advantage, one might expect Dole to exploit the social issues that still significantly distinguish the two parties. He needs the enthusiasm of social conservatives, especially among Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Yet he holds back, partly out of a near-obsessive fear of offending “moderates” and partly out of deep personal unease. He came of age well before social issues intruded into politics, and he has never learned to handle them comfortably. His awkward body language, his grimaces, and his dismissive verbal “whatevers” all indicate his sense that these are matters politics would be better off without.

This is so even when he is riding clear winners. He gave a popular speech attacking Hollywood for its general wretched excess”and then promptly dropped the subject, lending credence to the charge that he had raised the issue in the first place only under pressure from his advisors. Attempts to outlaw partial-birth abortions draw the support of large majorities, and President Clinton’s veto of the legislation offers Dole his best opportunity to win the Catholic vote he so desperately needs, and yet to date he has barely discussed the issue, and then only as an afterthought.

The same is true of Dole’s handling of the potentially explosive issue addressed by the symposium in this edition of FT: the usurpation of politics by the courts. He does, it is true, routinely attack “liberal judges” and promise to make more conservative appointments, but he has not pursued the question carefully or in depth. Indeed, he sometimes muddies the water by tying the issue to crime when in fact one of the few matters on which the courts have moved in a generally conservative direction in recent years has been precisely on law and order.

All in all, then, this campaign has so far offered the least substantive differences between the candidates since the races between Eisenhower and Stevenson in the 1950s. The fifties were widely hailed as an age of consensus and of the demise of ideological politics. Are we now, forty years later, restored to such a condition? It is most unlikely.

When commentators in the fifties spoke of the end of ideology, they did so in contrast to the 1930s, the most ideological period in American history. Because of the Great Depression, that decade skewed politics sharply to the left: Franklin Roosevelt was the most liberal of all our Presidents, and even so he was attacked as vehemently from the left as from the right. For the first time in our history, socialism seemed”if mainly among intellectuals”a genuine political option.

But postwar prosperity and the rise of the Cold War brought a quick end to the socialist flirtation. At the same time, Republicans made their peace with the New Deal reforms and entered on an extended “me-too” period: they would govern like the Democrats, only more efficiently.

Now we have me-tooism in reverse. After a lurch back to the left in the 1960s, American politics has moved steadily to the right, and Democrats today implicitly concede that Great Society liberalism is dead and conservative Republicanism has established the terms of political discourse. Clinton says in effect that he will govern like the Republicans, only (somewhat) more humanely.

But the nineties are not simply a mirror image of the fifties. A majority of Republicans in that earlier decade had genuinely come to terms with the changes wrought by the New Deal: the Eisenhower wing of the party held the upper hand over the Robert Taft conservatives. Today’s Democrats, by contrast, go along with Clinton’s concessions to the right because they have no real choice. He’s the candidate, and besides his poll numbers are currently very high. But most party activists hate what he has done, especially on the welfare issue, and while they may for the moment suffer mostly in silence, they have not forsaken the true liberal faith.

It may be, of course, that Clinton’s apparent success will persuade the liberals to change their mind and recognize that their only near”term hope of reclaiming the political ascendancy is to adopt his flexible centrism (or, as others might put it, his cynical opportunism). The more likely scenario, however, is that once the present campaign is over the struggle for the Democratic soul will resume in earnest. And the Republicans, for their part, will resume acting like the conservatives they are rather than the warm-and-fuzzy moderates who predominated in San Diego.

The two parties, in their respective centers of gravity, maintain a genuine distance from each other on economic and social issues alike. They are not at all Tweedledum and Tweedledee. It is only immediate perceived political necessities, on both sides, that make things appear otherwise. After November 5“and perhaps even before”look for our current end of ideology to come abruptly to an end.