Left Turn, Again

Peter W. Schramm

October 1, 2000

September 17, 2000. Constitution Day. Some people do not think that this is an interesting election. They seem to think there isn’t that much difference between the two parties; they seem to think that both Gore and Bush are leaders enough to do the job. These people are wrong.

I think that this is an interesting, even fascinating election.

By the late 1970’s the Democratic Party was in trouble. This may have seemed ironic considering that Carter was president, the Democrats had a substantial majority in Congress, and the GOP was still trying to overcome Nixon’s flawed character. But, Carter couldn’t govern, even with a Democratic Congress.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the election of a Republican majority in the Senate for the first time in a generation, as well as Reagan’s landslide re-election in 1984, and then Bush’s sound defeat of Dukakis in 1988, led to a Democratic thought, a new thought.

Some young Turks within the Democratic Party (including Clinton, Gore, and Lieberman) established a group called the Democratic Leadership Council. Their purpose was to turn the party toward moderation, away from the New Deal-Great Society liberalism exemplified by the old guard of Dukakis, Mondale, and Tip O’Neill. They wanted to think and act anew, to reconsider entitlements, welfare, crime, and even foreign policy. At the very least, they wanted to apply conservative means to liberal ends. And they wanted to nominate a president who was electable and then re-electable. After all, the Democrats hadn’t re-elected a president since Franklin Roosevelt.

The loss by Michael Dukakis in 1988 was, from the point of view of the New Democrats, the death of liberalism. They searched for a new message and for a new leader. They found both in Bill Clinton. He became their champion. He ran as a Democrat made anew, he called for change away from the bad and selfish years of Reagan and Bush. Yet he was for economic growth, including free trade. He was no longer a tax and spend Democrat. His emphasis on a strong military was made more believable because Soviet Communism was already on the ash heap of history.

It worked. Bill Clinton was elected with 43% of the national vote. Never mind the mishaps of the first term, among which the health care debacle was the most spectacular, he was re-elected with just under 50% of the vote in 1996. But in the meantime, perhaps as a consequence of his first administration’s leftward lurch, a Republican House was elected for the first time since the early 1950’s, and Republicans held their majority in the Senate. Clinton was forced to say (never mind what he actually did or really believed) that the era of big government was over. Government had to be re-invented. Vice-president Gore was put in charge of that.

The Republican majority in Congress forced the Democratic White House to reform welfare, to cut entitlements, to at least admit that abortion should be rare (although legal). Some of the New Democrats (Lieberman, among others) were dangerously explicit in questioning the race based group politics that had become the core of the party, and some were even toying with supporting school vouchers (Lieberman, among others), and some were beginning to talk critically about the vulgarity in the culture, and how to change it (Lieberman, among others).

It looked like the old liberal Democratic Party had transformed itself. It looked like the Republicans were forced to consider all this and move in their direction. Now their conservatism was being called right wing and extreme, and they were forced to modify the noun with the adjective compassionate.

But no matter, thought the new GOP leadership under Bush the younger. We now know something of Clinton’s character—after all he was impeached—and we also know that Gore had defended him and on the day of infamy called Clinton “a great president.” This, combined with Gore’s own questionable fund raising practices, would be sufficient to make this election one based on character and trust. Whatever principled differences there may be among the two parties, in this election character would count.

But what Bush and his strategists didn’t expect is for Gore to do two things, seemingly contradictory things. First, he would separate himself from Clinton the person as much as possible. He did this most artfully by nominating Lieberman—at one point Clinton’s only Democratic critic—to be his running mate. Lieberman had the further advantage of being one of the New Democrats, no liberal this Democrat. Second, starting with his convention speech, Gore showed the world (and the many liberal factions within his party that did not fully trust him) that he really was an Old Democrat, that he really is a liberal. Lieberman immediately disowned any moderate positions he has held, and justified the tergiversation by saying that he is only running for vice president and whatever the boss says goes.

There are none of the New Democratic platitudes or tendencies in the Gore campaign. No questioning of racial quotas (the Black Caucus is reassured that Lieberman has given up his principles); no emphasis on free trade (the labor unions are pleased); nothing but money thrown at the education crisis (the teacher unions are pleased). And there are no new ideas on social security; tax policy would become even more Byzantine; the elderly would get a new entitlement; and health care—not all at once, but in pieces, first with children—would become nationalized (read, socialized). And Gore doesn’t call this liberalism. He calls it populism (read, give every identifiable group something from the federal treasury and tell people you are working for their interest). The continuation of government programs is good, and their expansion is even better, now made possible by the surplus (read, play money for liberals).

Bush has a good shot. As I write this he is neck-and-neck in the polls with Gore. But in order to win, he must argue during the last few weeks of the campaign (and not just by using clever television ads) that Gore is attached to—or at least tainted by—the Clinton administration’s sleazy mode of governing as well as Clinton’s character flaws. And—perhaps even more important—Bush must publicly argue that if you vote for Gore, you are voting for Michael Dukakis re-clothed, you are voting for the greatest expansion of government programs since the Great Society.

If Bush does this, he will not only have done a service to the country—because public discussion about principles and purposes is a good thing—but he will be elected the next president. Citizens need to be reminded of what’s at stake. And if they are, I have no doubt, they will choose a more limited and, still, Constitutional government over another period of Great Society-like expansion of government, even if it has a new name.