Tech takes backseat in presidential race

The leading candidates for president like to talk about a wide range of issues, but technology and the Internet do not appear to be among them.

4 min read
The leading candidates for president like to talk about a wide range of issues, but technology and the Internet do not appear to be among them.

Political observers have several theories about why the industry driving the New Economy seems to have been left on the speechwriter's floor, but they tend to agree on two points: The tech industry, it's believed, isn't eager to be discussed because government involvement isn't welcome, and Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush simply don't differ greatly on technology issues.

"They're Tweedledum and Tweedledigital," Jeff Chester, president of the Center for Media Education, said of Bush and Gore, respectively.

Peter Arnold, executive director of Hands Off the Internet, also saw similarities. "With so much unanimity among the candidates on the major New Economy issues," he said, "there are none left that rise to the level of wedge issues."

Campaign speeches and position papers support the idea that Bush and Gore have similar approaches to technology policy. Usually the differences are ones of process rather than philosophy.

For example, both Bush and Gore backed increasing the number of high-tech workers that could enter the United States under so-called H-1B visas, but Gore backed the Clinton administration's position of coupling that with amnesty for large numbers of illegal Latino immigrants.

Both favored extending the current moratorium preventing taxes targeted specifically at Internet purchases, but Gore wanted the extension coupled with legislative language calling for a reform of state sales and use taxes.

On most other major issues, few differences are visible, according to Chester. "There's not much difference between Gore and Bush, unfortunately," he said. "They're more worried about bucks than bytes.

"Special-interest money (from high-tech) came to both candidates, both parties," preventing issues such as online privacy and who will receive broadband from being discussed during the presidential campaign, Chester said.

The money race
The high-tech industry, including telecommunications and media companies, has been a generous political giver. But an analysis by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity suggests that Gore has been the big winner in the tech community.

Eight of the top 25 corporate donors to Gore were New Economy companies, from Atlanta-based BellSouth at No. 2 with $106,250 to Microsoft of Redmond, Wash.--and its chairman and his wife, Bill and Melinda Gates--at No. 21 with $51,250.

Other major Gore backers included No. 6 Viacom of New York City at $95,800; No. 9 Burbank, Calif.-based Walt Disney at $73,000; and other New York companies such as No. 12 Bell Atlantic, now Verizon Communications, at $63,525; No. 13 Time Warner at $63,325; No. 16 AT&T at $59,950; and No. 19 Cablevision Systems at $53,950.

Most of the top donors to Bush, not surprisingly, are in the petroleum business. Of those companies with interests in the New Economy, "none are Governor Bush's top patrons," said Center for Public Integrity founder Charles Lewis, although he noted that they did give to Bush's primary rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, as well as to Gore's primary opponent, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

Only one of the top 25 companies donating could possibly be considered a New Economy company: Hicks Muse Tate & Furst of Dallas, which owns a collection of radio stations, is No. 4 with $305,150. Founder and chairman Thomas Hicks is a friend of Bush and bought the Texas Rangers baseball team from him several years ago.

Bush still draws a great deal of support in the high-tech community, particularly among CEOs. Among his list of supporters are Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNeely, Dell Computer founder Michael Dell, Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers, The Barksdale Group managing partner Jim Barksdale, Intel founder Gordon Moore and Intel CEO Craig Barrett.

Gore also lists some prominent names, including Loudcloud chairman Marc Andreessen and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.

Mum's the word
While backing different candidates, these technology leaders all desire limited industry involvement by the government, a position both candidates mostly have embraced.

"Silence is golden," Hands Off the Internet's Arnold said regarding the lack of tech talk in the campaign. "After all, the high-tech industry has won on nearly every major issue during the past four years, with things like litigation reform and Net taxes."

Given that, Arnold said, there's "nothing left that strikes at a widespread gut level with the industry" that would make it want to inject itself in the debate when it might be better to stay out of sight.

The Center for Media Education's Chester agreed that the high-tech industry has little motivation to be out front in this campaign, although he views the lack of dialogue as a serious loss.

Arnold also noted that for the first time, "there's not the obvious Old vs. New Economy dynamic" such as when Bill Clinton ran against Bob Dole.

"Bill Clinton became the New Economy's best friend almost by default. When a large group of Silicon Valley executives got together to endorse Bob Dole, Dole didn't even bother to attend. This year you have two candidates who've cultivated the Internet community since almost its inception," he added.

There is perhaps no greater sign of the convergence of Gore and Bush on Internet policy than Silicon Valley-based TechNet, an advocacy group whose membership is a veritable Who's Who of technology elite.

For administrative purposes, TechNet has separate Republican and Democratic branches, but when lobbying it tries to form a united front. That proved no trouble this year, when Democrats and Republicans in TechNet successfully lobbied for, among other issues, an increase in high-tech visas and passage of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China.