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New York's Politics of the Future Not a Pretty Picture

New York has provided America with a glimpse of the political future - and it's not a pretty sight. In fact, it's downright ugly.

Alfonse D'Amato and Charles Schumer are locked in a brutal, petty, unedifying battle for one of New York's US Senate seats. One of this election season's closest races, it is perhaps the best illustration to date of the coarsening of American political culture.

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The deficiencies of the contest are enough to give Americans and New Yorkers plenty to think about - and much to lament. It is a truly scary harbinger of how future campaigns may be run.

First, there is the sheer cost of the campaign. The two candidates are now projected to spend more than $35million by next Tuesday in a frantic effort to win a job that pays $133,600 a year. (California's 1994 Diane Feinstein-Michael Huffington battle has the distinction of being the most expensive Senate race at $42 million.)

Senator D'Amato is expected to raise and spend at least $22 million in his bid to win reelection to a fourth term while Representative Schumer is projected to spend at least $13 million to unseat the incumbent.

These numbers help explain Schumer's prolonged absences from his job in Washington. The congressman from Brooklyn has placed much of his formidable legislative energy on hold this year as he focused on raising the money needed to win the Democratic primary against the early favorite, Geraldine Ferraro, and then position himself to take on D'Amato.

For D'Amato the fund-raising requirements haven't kept him away from his job, but they appear to have influenced how he has done his work. Analysts have noted that D'Amato, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, handled sweeping financial services reform legislation in a way that seemed to fully capitalize on its fund-raising potential. Nudging the bill forward in spite of its poor chances for passage in the Senate, D'Amato was able to induce the banking, securities, and insurance industries to cumulatively fork over more than $1.2 million to his campaign. Hedging their bets, these industries also gave only a slightly smaller sum to Schumer, who sits on the House Banking Committee.

This vast pot of money has been largely used to finance the TV ad wars the two are using to brutalize each other with half-truths and outright distortions. The ads have done little more than present caricatures of each candidate and driven both of their approval ratings to levels that reflect eroding public confidence.

Slugging it out in the electronic gutter, Schumer has variously described D'Amato as a "liar," "bully," and "sleaze." Meanwhile, D'Amato escalated the name-calling, miring himself in controversy - and elaborate backpedaling - by deriding Schumer with a Yiddish vulgarism that colloquially means "jerk."

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Most of Schumer's harshest critics grudgingly admit he's a formidable legislator and not the tardy laggard described by D'Amato. And even D'Amato's fiercest critics acknowledge the senator has brought home plenty of largess to New York and is not the disinterested flunky that Schumer's ads claim.

Meanwhile D'Amato and Schumer have spent little time head-to-head on issues, such as abortion, crime, and taxes. The race has been a clear triumph of message-driven politics in which candidates offer not a sustained argument or even a clear summary of their views but rather a focus-group-tested slogan that is designed to persuade voters through sheer repetition.

This has become the most distressing development of modern US politics. Consultants implore their candidates to repeat a practiced message - such as D'Amato's refrain that Schumer "has missed more votes in 12 months than I have in 12 years" and Schumer's "too many lies for too long" rejoinder. Many journalists actually credit those candidates who have the "discipline" to "stay on message." The implication is that the mindless repetition of a well-honed slogan is an act of political courage and reflects sound judgment.

The triumph of message was sadly clear during the two debates between D'Amato and Schumer when the two clung tenaciously to practiced lines. Almost comically, D'Amato responded to virtually every question by citing the number of House votes Schumer missed in 1998. And Schumer rarely finished a sentence without repeating that D'Amato could not be trusted and was an embarrassment to the state.

These debates are supposed to be a serious part of our democratic process, but were in fact a tedious embarrassment. Remarkably, they demonstrated that two candidates as colorful and idiosyncratic as D'Amato and Schumer are predictable and tiresome when shackled to a canned message.

To be fair, this grim political trend started long before the New York campaign. But this race will perhaps be seen as the point when much that is bad and vulgar and dispiriting about American campaigns has exploded into full bloom. It's both sobering and heartbreaking that a US Senate seat may hinge on how well D'Amato can explain away the Yiddish slur he slung at Schumer.

* John Shaw is a congressional correspondent for Market News International. He is also a contributing writer to the Washington magazines Capital Style and Washington Diplomat.

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