Who would have thought that a decade after ideology was supposed to be over, the current U.S. election would have turned out to be a classic, old-style right-left battle? There's one man responsible for this: Al Gore. In retrospect, his convention speech signaled a critical turning point in contemporary American politics. The old fuzziness of Clinton's Third Way has ceded to a clear, ideological shift. In an age of surplus, Gore wants to grow the government at the expense of business, and expand the public sector while further regulating and taxing the private. Bush, in contrast, looks and sounds like a Clinton Democrat. He has largely gone quiet on all the contentious social issues - abortion, homosexuality, school prayer - that marginalized the Republicans in the 1990s. But he has just as pointedly positioned himself on the side of smaller government and tax cuts in the decade ahead. While not opposing government programs (there's no more talk, for example, of abolishing the Department of Education as Gingirch promised in 1994), Bush has argued for reforming them on market-based lines. He wants partial privatization of pensions, an internal market for pensioners' health-care, stricter testing and accountability for state schools, and so on.
Gore, on the other hand, is a throwback to the 1970s. Gone is any sign of the New Democrat of the last decade. Gore's response to the shift in healthcare costs from hospitals to prescription medicines is to initiate a massive new entitlement for drugs for the elderly, simply added to the existing Medicare program. He wants no reform whatsoever to that program, no internal market, and no change in determining who gets what. Gore's response to the coming demographic crunch in America's pension funding is equally reactionary. He simply ignores it, and funnels more money into a system that we already know can't work for much longer. Race? He relies proudly on top-down affirmative action programs that states like California have recently outlawed. Abortion? No restrictions ever, anywhere, even if you have to crush an unborn child's skull in the womb to prevent a live birth. Foreign policy? His open-ended support for American intervention in any region, however remote, where America's "values" are at stake matches Jimmy Carter's idealism with Ronald Reagan's interventionism. Woodrow Wilson must be grinning in his grave.
All of this is befuddling. Even Gore supporters who were once reconstructed liberals have reverted to the old politics of class warfare. The New Republic, my own magazine, pioneered neo-liberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, preferring the mantras of civic responsibility and social inclusion over the old left's insistence on economic redistribution and racial quotas. But their endorsement of Al Gore last week read like a panegyric to socialism. Only Gore would help the "working-classes," the editors repeatedly averred, a phrase last used repeatedly in America in the 1950s. Gore's rhetorical thrust in last week's debate was again to demonize the 'wealthiest one percent' and the 'big' oil companies, drug manufacturers, and entrpreneurs who have created the boom that makes Gore's own election conceivable. He proposes no real tax cuts, merely a shower of new tax shelters to encourage correct behaviour on the part of American citizens. He seems mystified at the notion that younger voters might trust the stock market more than government bonds in saving for their own retirement. The amount of new spending he has promised dwarves anything Mondale or Dukakis or Clinton ever aimed for. And Gore's meddling in the economy doesn't stop at micro-taxation. He is threatening to use the Federal Trade Commission to regulate companies whose advertizing and marketing the federal government deems politically incorrect.
Then there's the reversion to the Democrats' ancient prejudice that only the truly thick can vote Republican. Much of the criticism unloaded on Bush has focussed on the idea that he's not clever enough to be president. How could you possibly vote for that guy, my liberal friends splutter. He's so stupid! This, of course, was the refrain used against Eisenhower and Truman and Reagan. It didn't work then; and it doesn't work now. Most voters, mercifully, understand that there's a difference between theoretical intelligence and good practical judgement. When they watch the debates, they're not analysing the details. They're observing the temperament, wit, and demeanour of the men who might be leading the country in a few months time. On that score, Bush cleans up. One post-debate poll found a very close match on most of the issues, and a small victory for Gore on the question, "Who won the debate?", but then the voters were asked who was the more likeable candidate. 60 percent said Bush, compared to Gore's 30 percent.
Most voters, unlike most liberals, know that what makes a good president is not knowing exactly who the president of Kazakhstan is or what the personal deduction is for a single mother in the 15 percent tax bracket. A president is supposed to set broad goals and let others fill in the gaps. Details can be derailing. After the Jimmy Carter debacle, Democrats absorbed this truth. Clinton was a rare creature who was both master of broad themes and of tiny details. But when Clinton put trees before woods, details before themes, he failed. Look at the hyper-detailed health-care plan which was dead-on-arrival on Capitol Hill. Personal charm is also critical. Whatever happens in the presidential election, we can be pretty sure that the Congress is going to be very evenly divided next year. The next president is going to need good schmoozing skills, few bitter enemies, and a strong thematic appeal to the country. It's hard to see how Gore can rise to this challenge. But Bush, from the evidence of this campaign, seems a natural for it.
Indeed, if there's been one huge surprise in this campaign, it is the improvement of Bush. If someone had said to me that in October I'd be quietly rooting for a man I found repulsive in March, I'd have told them to get their head examined. But Gore's lurch to the left has coincided with a dramatically improved performance by Bush. Even his enemies have conceded as much. In the three debates, he seemed fluent, comfortable in his own skin, modest, sometimes funny, and human. There were no dreadful mangles of the English language, few demonstrable factual errors (unlike, surprisingly, Gore), and although he seemed at times unable or unwilling to counter Gore point by point, his very low-key tone helped cement the notion that he can move the country forward away from the Clinton era. My gut tells me this strikes a strong chord in the country - and the Gallup poll in the days after the debate has shown Bush gaining a two-digit lead. Gore, in contrast, positively reeks of insecurity. In last week's debate, he strutted around the stage, invading Bush's space, puffing out his pecs, flaring his thick neck, like an Alsatian patrolling a front yard. It was something of a relief that he didn't cock his leg and urinate all over Bush's chair. He was forceful and in command of his brief. But, like most bullies, his machismo was also strained. Bush seemed far more comfortable in his undemonstrative masculinity.
So the race remains tight. As a back-drop, you have an economy which still overwhelmingly favours the incumbent Gore. Most economic models predict he should win this one by a 15 percent margin. Instead he's behind by a significant amount outside the margin of error of most polls. In the electoral college, the latest numbers show Bush with 205 "safe" electoral votes and 30 "leaning" his way. Gore polls 92 safe and 136 leaning. They both need 270 electoral votes to win. Either could still pull it off, but Gore's continuing vulnerability illustrates something that should worry the left on both sides of the Atlantic. The era in which left-of-centre parties can simply appropriate the right's issues and call themselves a Third Way is clearly drawing to a close. If the right-of-centre parties moderate sufficently, especially on the social issues like sex and drugs, they can recapture the centre, while retaining their base. But the left is in a tougher spot. Once liberals are no longer a relief from right-wing rule, they have to win new elections on their own terms. If they run from the centre, their base stays at home - and they lose. If they shift to the left, as Gore out of desperation has done, they run the risk of being out on an ideological limb - and they lose as well. Even boom times can't save them. If I were Tony Blair, I'd be watching this American election like a hawk. And sweating.
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