Back in July Irving Kristol wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that “never in living memory has American politics been so unfocused.” The volatility of the opinion polls, with wild swings between Bush and Gore, seem to bear this out. It is also the case that this is the first election since 1920 in which the country finds itself both prosperous and without an overriding world crisis such as the Cold War casting a long shadow over the race. (The 1996 election also meets this description, except that an incumbent was on the ballot.) As political scientist Norman Ornstein has remarked, the nation today is “a hotbed of social rest.”
This also means that never in living memory has the disjunction between the Beltway and the rest of America been greater. The intensity of this election has been running at a fever pitch inside the Beltway for more than a year. There is an obvious reason for this. As has been pointed out, this election more closely resembles an all-party election of a parliamentary democracy; all three branches of government are at stake in November, and with the balance between the parties so finely balanced, the election looks more pivotal than any since 1860, when the Republican Party first emerged, or 1800, when the Federalist Party was swept away. Yet the electorate greets this historical moment with a yawn. Between the Olympics and the baseball playoffs, the electorate may pay attention to the election for about one week.
There is a deeper dimension of the intensity inside the Beltway, which, close inspection would probably find, is more prevalent among Democrats. Among the liberal establishment and the leadership of the Democrats, the conservative movement is still regarded as an alien force in American life, and the Republican majority in Congress is regarded as an illegitimate intrusion on the presumptive right of liberals to rule. And who can blame them for thinking so? Democrats are better at politics than Republicans. Between the congenital rhetorical defects of most Republican politicians and the palpable lack of self-confidence ever since the government shutdown fiasco of 1995, Democrats can be forgiven their presumption. The reaction of the Bush campaign to the complaints about the supposedly subliminal “rats” ad in mid-September only adds to this impression.
Bush missed an opportunity to reinforce the argument of the ad by apologizing to rats for unfavorably comparing them to bureaucrats, who are a much worse pestilence on America.
Beneath the chatter and the spin of both campaigns and the media, this election is going to decide the very large question of whether Ronald Reagan succeeded in supplanting Franklin Roosevelt as America’s dominant political influence at the end of the 20th Century. The 1980 election was in a sense about Roosevelt; Reagan’s view that “government is the problem” and not the solution to our troubles was a direct challenge to the legacy of FDR. President Clinton seemingly ratified Reagan’s place with his infamous remark that “the era of big government is over.” Indeed, Clinton both campaigned for office and governed in the shadow of Reagan.
The great irony of Reagan, as George Will predicted in 1980 would be the case, is that he succeeded largely by restoring public confidence in government. Once Clinton set aside his delusions of FDR grandeur following the health care debacle in 1994, he cleverly built upon Reagan’s achievement through his cynical strategy of “triangulation” and his self-conscious imitation of Reagan’s optimism and celebration of America’s greatness. (It helped to have the benefit of the second phase of Reagan’s economic boom as well as the absence of the Cold War. With that strong a wind at your back, any idiot could win the America’s Cup race in a single-sail dinghy.) Now the rise of the budget surplus has brought us to the moment where the voters must decide whether Reagan was right about the nature of modern government.
Whether Reagan intended to or not—and this is subject of fierce controversy—the huge budget deficits of the 1980s (which can be seen in hindsight as the wartime deficits of the final campaign of the Cold War, and therefore as a bargain) had the effect of slamming shut the door to any new large-scale federal spending programs or entitlements. But today’s large permanent budget surpluses are as taken for granted as much as large permanent budget deficits were just a decade ago, and Vice President Gore is proposing to get back in the business of creating new spending programs and new entitlements. It is as though we were back to the perpetual motion spending machine of 1963, when it was assumed by the Keynesian “New Frontiersmen” that budget surpluses would only accrue so long as the federal government kept spending as fast as the money came in.
In other words, this election can also be said to be the first ever where a large budget surplus is a central feature, and hence “balanced budget liberalism” is a central question for voters. This choice repeats itself on the other side of the fiscal question—on taxes. Like Reagan in 1980, Gov. Bush wants to cut tax rates for everyone. Gore wants a “targeted— tax cut—which is a euphemism for tax cuts only for Democratic constituencies and other favored groups who are targeted to become Democratic constituencies. The ‘targeted’ tax cut philosophy that Gore espouses represents the technocratic belief that government can “pick winners” and fine-tune economic outcomes with the delicate scalpel of government tax policy. It pairs well with the old liberal view that government spending (though they call it “investment” now) is a better engine for securing economic prosperity than private sector investment.
Just as the issue of the surplus will illuminate public attitudes toward activist government, the dispute over what kind of tax cut we should have will illuminate public attitudes about the issue of “fairness.” With low inflation, widespread prosperity, and rising incomes, many comfortable middle class and professional people do not feel the outrage over high taxes. And the same generous spirit that makes many Americans support a prescription drug entitlement for seniors (who as a class are the most well-off people in the nation) inclines the same Americans to have sympathy with the “targeted” tax cut argument. This circumstance would seem to favor Gore, especially since Republicans seem congenitally incapable of making strong arguments such as that “fairness” requires asking who the money belongs to, and that “fairness” dictates that all taxpayers should be treated equally, which means rates should be cut across the board.
In other words, the two key domestic issues are: Who owns the surplus: the people or the government? And what constitutes “fairness” in tax policy? The two issues are clearly linked, and voters’ judgments will probably swing together on these paired issues. The opportunity seems to lie with Bush, and the peril with Gore, if we assume that Reagan’s shadow is still cast across the electoral landscape.
Whether the candidates, especially Bush, can get the distracted electorate to concentrate on these issues is hard to say. Election results are always over-analyzed, and this election could turn on something as small as which candidate exhibits a nervous twitch in the debates, or even whether the slobber from Gore’s kiss has dried up. If in 1960 Nixon had worn a darker suit, used a make-up man, and insisted on turning down the air conditioning so he didn’t visibly and profusely sweat on camera, he might well have beaten Kennedy instead of losing by a whisker. (Remember that a large majority of people who listened to the famous debates on the radio judged Nixon to be the winner, while TV viewers came to the opposite conclusion.) The real task for either candidate, then, is to emulate John F. Kennedy in 1960, who transformed a razor-thin victory into a seeming mandate by sheer force of will and purposeful rhetoric.
In other words, in a close election as this one appears likely to be, the political spinning after the election may be more important than the campaign itself.
Steven Hayward is Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.