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Do these ideas, great and small, serve one and all?

In politics and government, it seems the size of an idea is becoming as important as the idea itself _ if not more so.

Small ideas have become the staple of the Clinton-Gore administration. President Clinton discovered a few years back that small ideas have a number of advantages: They are inexpensive, can be targeted to satisfy specific interest groups and often can be carried out without the approval of Congress.

In an effort to set himself apart from Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, former Sen. Bill Bradley is proposing to be the candidate of big ideas. But selling the size of his ideas seems to be a dangerous strategy for Bradley.

Many Americans still remember the last truly big idea that came over the political horizon: Clinton's 1994 health care reform proposal. It was such a failure that it caused Clinton to retreat into small ideas.

Bradley's hawking of his big ideas also reminds me of Gary Hart's ill-advised 1984 campaign theme of "new ideas."

That strategy backfired on Hart shortly after he won the New Hampshire primary. When the pundits started to examine Hart's ideas, they were disappointed to find that most of them were not the least bit new.

I still remember how Hart's campaign press secretary, Kathy Bushkin, admitted to me in February 1984 that the Democratic challenger was beginning to regret his new ideas theme as a result of this criticism in the press. The problem was, Bushkin said, there are no truly new ideas.

As with new and old ideas, the distinction between big and small ideas is similarly difficult to prove.

Bradley would reform health care in a more comprehensive way than Gore, but Gore's small steps are nevertheless based on the same big idea: access to health care for every American. In fact, that is the same old big idea that got Clinton into so much difficulty in 1994.

And of course, the size of an idea is not nearly as important as whether that idea is worthy. But at a time when voters are being bombarded with ideas, both big and small, it becomes difficult for them to distinguish between good and bad ideas.

Perhaps that is the goal of these politicians: to numb us with so many ideas that we cannot possibly separate the workable ideas from those that are completely foolish.

Another problem with this year's campaign ideas is that, no

matter what size they are, they seem remarkably complicated, especially on the Democratic side.

I am certain I was not the only television watcher who felt completely lost when Gore asked Bradley in their most recent debate in New Hampshire to name the 24 states in which beneficiaries of his health insurance plan would receive less than $150 a month. How is an ordinary voter supposed to judge an idea with that degree of complexity?

What's even more surprising is that candidates who devise complex, book-length health care proposals then proceed to try to sell these plans in 30-second television spots. Does that make sense?

I also was struck by how Gore and Bradley discussed these ideas as if they were already written into legislation. I wanted to say: "Hey guys, let's keep this in perspective. These are just ideas you're batting around."

Of all the major candidates in the race, Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the one whose campaign proposals are the least specific or detailed. At first, I thought he needed to get more specific _ just to keep up with the others.

But now I am inclined to believe that Bush's more general approach to ideamaking is on target. If Bush wins the GOP nomination and runs against Gore, the policy wonk, perhaps he could proclaim himself to be the candidate of "easy-to-grasp ideas."

Clinton's State of the Union speech also had the effect of numbing us with too many ideas. After hearing his 89-minute laundry list of proposals, I wanted to ask him: "How in the world do you think you can accomplish all of these things in less than one year in office?"

What is most annoying about this trend is that while politicians are full of ideas, they seem unwilling to set priorities. In fact, they have a bad habit of telling us that every idea is the most important one _ especially the one that appeals to their current audience.

Their inability to set priorities seems to explain why there are so many ideas and so few concrete results.

What I would like to see is a politician who, instead of debating the size or correctness of his or her ideas, would set out to find an acceptable political compromise that would solve at least one important problem facing the nation.

Wouldn't that be a good idea?