No sex if you please, we're voting now

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN ALL the ferocious campaigning of the past three weeks, there was one puzzle. Where on earth had the presidential sex scandal gone? Having dominated the news for more than nine months, it had simply vanished. From Clinton supporters, especially those with children, a common explanation was: "I just don't want to think about it, it's too disgusting." Republicans, for their part, were wary of capitalising on the wayward sex-life of a popular president. Only in the last week did they venture national television advertisements alluding - very discreetly - to the scandal.

With the question of President Bill Clinton's fitness for office apparently shunned by the voters, the one big national theme of the election was absent. But so too were most of the national issues that have dominated United States elections for a generation: big government, the economy, taxation, crime, immigration, minority rights - perhaps because voters perceive that progress has been made, or because so many spending decisions have been devolved to the states and regions.

Perennials like education, the federal pension scheme, and health insurance partly filled the vacuum. Most striking was the emergence of a group of new concerns that could well grow into the national issues of the future, perhaps as soon as the presidential election of 2000. These could be identified as ethics, party funding, the environment, gambling, social inclusion, and drugs.

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal may not have swayed the voters directly, but it did push the themes of ethics and morality in public life on to the agenda in several campaigns. A number of Democratic candidates seemed to be trying to dissociate themselves from Mr Clinton by implication, flaunting their own "family values".

Some, like Buddy MacKay, the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, co-opted their wives to vouch for their honour and constancy. Ann MacKay appeared in television advertisements to sing her husband's praises: "I should know; we've been married 39 years."

As the campaign progressed, party funding - how candidates raised money and what they used it for - increasingly became an issue. In Wisconsin, the Democratic incumbent, Russ Feingold, risked his seat after setting a limit to his spending and sticking to it - all in the cause of putting his money where his mouth was on the need to reform the system. His Republican opponent, Mark Neumann, used his adverts to deride his rival's efforts, making the Wisconsin Senate race a mini-referendum on the public's appetite for funding reform.

The issue of the environment, with its concerns about atmospheric pollution, profligate use of energy and preserving unspoilt landscapes has barely registered on the barometer of American voters' concerns, except in small pockets of California, New Mexico and New England - until now.

Urban sprawl is becoming the issue for middle-class Americans, who fled cramped and dangerous cities for the space and safety of the suburbs. Increasingly, they find themselves in conflict with newer suburbanites and developers whose schemes have brought overcrowded schools, congested roads and overloaded utilities - the very evils they had sought to escape. Proposals for tougher planning regulations, conservation areas, and perhaps even increased local taxes to halt new developments figured on the ballot papers in no fewer than 15 states.

The rapid spread of legalised gambling in the US in the past decade has taken place mostly out of sight of urban Americans: in Nevada, on Indian reservations and in depressed areas, such as the Mississippi delta, where the industry has brought jobs and income to places with few other resources.

Seeing the easy money to be made from gambling, it became an issue in at least six states, pitting those who disapprove of gambling on principle (at least three southern Republican governors) against those (mainly Democratic contenders) who said they would use the money to boost spending on worthy causes such as schools and health.

Social inclusion is also on the agenda. As a succession of states reconsiders the advantages of affirmative action - favouring ethnic minorities and women for university places and public service jobs to counteract what is seen as entrenched discrimination - politicians are recognising the growing political clout of ethnic minorities, especially the fast growing Hispanic minority, and courting them directly.

In California, Texas and Florida, but also in other states, candidates for office ventured into black and Hispanic districts, paid for campaign advertising in Spanish, and talked about "inclusion".

Legalising the medical use of marijuana was the subject of referendums in six states and in Washington DC. Opponents saw the proposition as a preliminary to general legalisation of soft drugs.

The likely Yes vote in the majority of these referendums would reflect not just the spread of a less censorious attitude towards soft drugs, but the burgeoning American interest in alternative medicine - an interest fostered by the patchiness and cost of conventional health insurance. The influence of the pro-marijuana lobby is only likely to grow.