Al Gore is fading fast. Opposition to gun control will doom the Republicans in next year's elections, when control of Congress and the White House are up for grabs. The voters are searching for alternatives to the political establishment and could turn to a third-party presidential campaign. It's all settled.
These immutable nostrums of 1999 are being cited with confidence -- a sure sign that great changes in the conventional wisdom are imminent.
But in every campaign the givens are overtaken, the assumptions are upended. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2000, the day after the election, the commentators will analyze the returns with calm dispassion, as if the results were inevitable, clear for all to see. It's not that easy 13 months in advance.
At this stage of previous campaigns, smart people thought John F. Kennedy might lose the Democratic nomination to Hubert H. Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson, Stuart Symington or even Adlai E. Stevenson (1960). They believed Johnson was a sure bet for renomination (1968). They were convinced Jimmy Carter was a gadfly, or worse (1976).
So as this election approaches, here's a guide to some of the pillars of politics that might be toppled by the ultimate arbiters, the voters:
- Gore's campaign is sinking like a stone. The vice president's campaign is top-heavy, heavily influenced by the Clinton administration and maybe just too heavy in style and tone. Every respectable poll shows him losing in a landslide to Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. Moreover, the vice president seems more vulnerable to the virus of "Clinton fatigue" than anyone else in politics, including, ironically, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, according to polls, is in a better position in the Senate race in New York than Gore is in the presidential race.
The counter-intuitive conclusion from all that data: Don't count Gore out. Ronald Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses, his campaign was in disarray and his persona was in disrepute in the early days of the 1980 campaign. He won the nomination by spring, the presidency by fall. The same was true of George Bush in 1988. Bush finished third in Iowa, behind the Rev. Pat Robertson, but then streaked to the presidency. Even Bob Dole, who suffered embarrassing losses in early primaries in 1996, nonetheless rallied and easily won the nomination.
- Opposition to gun control endangers GOP hopes. A series of tragic mass killings has put gun control back on the American agenda, with Democrats eager to embrace new restrictions. Lawmakers and candidates can debate the policy virtues of such a stand, but the political virtues seem an obvious advantage for the Democrats.
But maybe not. Republicans tend to stick with GOP candidates regardless of their position on gun control. That's not the case with Democrats. Ted Jelen of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas just completed a study of gun-control politics since 1968 -- a year the Republicans recaptured the White House from the Democrats and the first time gun issues were prominent in the American debate. Jelen found that the voters most likely to desert the Democrats for the GOP are the roughly 20 percent who oppose gun restrictions. They are, moreover, mostly Southern white males, a classic swing group of voters.
- The election could be determined by the huge rush of support to third parties. The two major parties prompt ever greater distrust and are in ever greater disrepute. Their fund-raising operations and political tactics are the subject of voter contempt, not contentment. Even so, there is no clamor for a third party for 2000.
None of the leading third-party candidates -- billionaire Ross Perot, Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan or actor Warren Beatty -- scores higher than 9.5 percent in three-way trial heats conducted by Frank I. Luntz, who was Perot's pollster in 1992. The most likely, Buchanan, polls 6.6 percent, hurting Bush slightly -- but not so much that it matters.
Third-party activists are a leading indicator of political discontent, often an important factor in American politics. But right now there aren't enough of them -- and, more tellingly, there isn't enough discontent -- to make much difference.