Previously in Politics & Prose:
Fuzzy Economics (October 12, 2000)
George W. Bush is right -- the era of big government being over is over. Even if he's the one elected. Christopher Caldwell explains.
The New New South (September 13, 2000)
In recent decades the South has been a Republican stronghold. Times are changing, Christopher Caldwell writes.
The Tyranny of Belief (September 13, 2000)
Some politicians, including Joe Lieberman, would blur the line between religion and politics. They're gravely misguided, Jack Beatty argues.
Leftward Bound (August 23, 2000)
Can you teach a New Democrat old tricks? Christopher Caldwell on Gore's gamble with Lieberman.
The Legacy Haunting Gore (August 9, 2000)
Trade, not scandal, Jack Beatty argues, is the legacy of the Clinton years that could cost Gore the election.
The Issues That Aren't (July 26, 2000)
Where does George W. Bush stand on Microsoft? Where does Al Gore stand on Kosovo? On Big Tobacco? You don't know? You're not alone, writes Christopher Caldwell.
The Democratic Difference (July 13, 2000)
Ralph Nader says the Republican and Democratic parties are indistinguishable. Jack Beatty looks at the record on labor, "the issue our era will be measured by," and sees quite another reality.
More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.
Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
November 1, 2000
Can this campaign be saved? Should it?
by Jack Beatty
Al Gore's mistakes in this campaign have been of vision, strategy, and character. Let's look at each in turn, and then consider whether he deserves to win the election.
Vision. Gore has yet to justify his candidacy, has yet to answer the question, Why am I running for President? Why am I the right man, why are my programs the right programs, for the challenges ahead? In this he is following the Bill Clinton of 1996, who ran a visionless incumbent's campaign against the hapless Bob Dole, not the Bill Clinton of 1992, who situated his candidacy in history.
The Clinton of 1992 was running for President to use the powers of government to at once speed the transition to a global economy, through opening foreign markets to U.S. goods via bilateral trade agreements, and to ease that transition, by making the domestic investments in physical and human capital that would ensure the prosperity of American workers in an economy made more competitive by his trade policies. Putting People First, the campaign booklet Clinton released during the 1992 primaries, was a manifesto for economic security in the 1990s and beyond. At its center was a promise of "medical care that is always there" -- always there if you lose your job as a result of trade with poorer countries, always there if you are in transition from one job to another, always there if you decide to give up your job to start a business. Government cannot guarantee economic outcomes, Clinton said, but it can guarantee one of the conditions of economic security for working families.
After the GOP takeover of the House, in 1994, Clinton gave up on economic security and ran, as Gore does now, on economic growth. But the point is that Clinton's proposals on health care, education, family leave, the minimum wage, worker retraining, political reform, and the rest together argued for a candidacy that spoke to a moment of vertiginous technological and economic change. Gore, by contrast, has run a continuity campaign, playing defense on the achievements of the Roosevelt Administration (Social Security), the Johnson Administration (Medicare), and the Clinton Administration (a vibrant economy). His command of policy details cannot hide the intellectual poverty of his campaign.
Strategy. Gore's strategic failure has followed from his intellectual one. His proposals have been selected with a view to electioneering, to tactics. Is prescription drugs for the elderly really the major issue of our time? Not even seniors hard-pressed by the cost of drugs can believe that. Gore's prescription-drugs proposal was tailored to win votes in Florida, which has the oldest electorate, and Pennsylvania, a key swing state with the second oldest. And it is such a cautious plan! In a Business Week interview a drug-company lobbyist identifies its crippling flaw: "He never talks about price controls."
Why doesn't Gore promise to use Medicare's purchasing power to drive drug prices down and keep them down? Because his longtime fundraiser Peter Knight, now deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, has received nearly $500,000 in lobbying fees from a drug company since 1996. Because his close political adviser Tom Downey, a former Long Island congressman, shills for the drug companies; his media adviser, Carter Eskew, has lobbied for the drug and tobacco industries; and his vice-presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Lieberman, has financed his career on contributions from big drug and insurance companies. For Gore to then lay claim to a "populist" position on prescription drugs gives credence to Ralph Nader's charge that "If [Gore] were a corporation, he'd be prosecuted by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive practices."
On Social Security, Gore offers the fiscal flim-flam of a "lockbox." Does any sentient being believe that this accounting trick can ensure the solvency of the system as the Baby Boomers retire? No, but it might impress the old folks in Florida and Pennsylvania.
There is another, progressive, alternative to no reform (Gore's position) and privatization (Bush's). A few years ago the Clinton Administration briefly floated the trial balloon of the federal government's investing a portion of Social Security proceeds in the stock market. Here in embryo was a program for a genuine people's capitalism: public investment in corporations would inevitably tilt hitherto strictly private decisions with public consequences -- layoffs, disinvestment, product quality -- in the direction of democratic accountability. But political fear silenced Clinton on public investment, and with him Gore, letting Bush play the reformer on Social Security.
When Gore first ran for President, in the 1988 Democratic primaries, it was clear that he had no domestic or economic policy vision. Bereft of a rationale for his candidacy beyond his mastery of the arcana of nuclear-weapons strategy, he was reduced to making negative attacks on his opponents and to pandering. As someone who will vote for Gore, I wish I could say that his 2000 campaign marked an improvement, that he had learned from his mistakes, that he had grown.
Character. Gore's book, Earth in the Balance, showed him to be a visionary leader on history's burden on this generation -- the threat to the biosphere posed by industrialization. Addressing the global-warming crisis, he wrote, should be nothing less than "the central organizing principle of our civilization." Those words contain the rationale for a Gore candidacy. They answer the question of why he wants to be President. They match man and moment. Yet in the campaign Gore has run away from his own vision. He has not leveled with the voters. He has not told them what he knows about the challenges facing them and their children -- unprecedented challenges that might oblige them to change the way they live in order to preserve the human future. He has not done so, one can only conclude, because he lacks the spine to stand up for what he believes. It might offend powerful interests. It might cost him West Virginia. Yet the environment remains a national faith -- an issue on which, to the broad public, there is no other side. A President who used that faith to rally opinion on global warming would be hailed by posterity. Even delegates to the Republican National Convention agreed that in a conflict between business and the environment they were prepared to sacrifice companies and jobs and growth. Washington, Oregon: would these states be tilting toward Bush now if Gore had run on his vision? Unforgivably, Gore has let Bush make this an election about nothing.
Still, Gore must win it. If Bush prevails, all three branches of government could easily be in the hands of a radical Republican Party -- the party of Lott and DeLay, of environmental legislation written by polluters, of tax cuts for 600,000 of the richest Americans, of the non-union open shop and striker replacement, of "regulatory relief" for corporations that foul the air and water and put the lives and safety of their workers at risk. It's the party that wants to stop government from protecting citizens from private interests but arm government with the power to regulate a woman's body. And it's the party of George W. Bush, as shallow a man as has ever aspired to the presidency, a man who cannot defend his own programs, a man so weak that he had to appeal to the moderator of the third debate -- "Jim!" -- to protect him from Big Bad Al Gore and his threatening questions. That moment should have sunk his candidacy. He can't cry "Jim!" in the Oval Office (though he could cry "Daddy!"). But it seems to have made no impression on focus groups of undecided voters, who thought Bush did well in the debate.
Polls suggest that relatively few of these politically hopeless undecideds will show up to vote. This is looking to be a turnout election, with victory going to the party that can most effectively get out its vote. In this last week of the campaign, Gore needs to suspend his crippling caution to adapt to the situation. He needs to lay it on the line: Do you want a Republican executive, a Republican legislature, and a Republican court (seven of the nine current members are Republican appointees)? What is to check the extremism of the party that shut down the government, tied up Washington for a year on impeachment, and has become the political arm of the NRA? Gore has been loath to say "Republican" for fear, no doubt, that anti-political undecideds might remember he's a Democrat. He's got to say it now.
This election is about the concentration of power in the hands of one party. The Founding Fathers, Bernard Bailyn writes in Faces of the Revolution, infused into American political culture
the belief that power is evil; that it is ultimately corrupting; and that it must be controlled, limited, restricted in every way compatible with a minimum of civil order. Written constitutions; the separation of powers; bills of rights; limitations on executives, on legislatures, and courts all express the profound distrust of power at the ideological heart of the American Revolution.Gore has this basic American suspicion of power going for him. An election that should be about the American future has come down to stopping a Republican monopoly of power.
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More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.