Round One - November 1, 2000
At this point in an election, nobody wants to hear any more rhetoric about how this choice is a "turning point" or a "defining moment" or "historic." So let's dispense with such terms and ask a simple question: What would Al Gore and George W. Bush do differently? The list is very long.
Fiscal Policy. This is the clearest difference. Bush's tax cuts amount to at least $1.3 trillion over a decade and, calculated differently, up to $1.7 trillion. Bush proposes cutting Social Security tax receipts by another trillion. Gore, by contrast, would cut taxes over the same period by $500 billion.
Leave aside all the complicated math and even the question of who would benefit most from the tax cuts. Is it better to maintain fiscal space to pay down the debt and pay for programs, or not? My friend Paul Gigot warned conservatives back in 1998 that the era of "balanced-budget liberalism" was dangerous to them because surpluses deprive his side of their best argument against new programs: that they'd increase the deficit. The surplus is why there is political room now to talk about a prescription-drug benefit for the elderly, expansions in health coverage and child care, and other programs. Bush is quite candid in saying he's running against government. The surest way to end talk about meeting social needs is to wipe out the surplus.
But don't believe me on this. Here's what a candid editorial writer had to say in National Review earlier this fall: that Bush's "support for tax cuts and Social Security reform is more important than his spending initiatives -- not least because if he succeeds on taxes and Social Security, it will be easier to limit government in the future." Exactly.
Social Security Privatization. No need to go into detail here, either. If Bush wins, he'll claim a mandate for privatizing part of Social Security. And why wouldn't he? He hasn't given many details, but he has been clear about his intentions. The Social Security debate would never be the same again if Bush won.
Supreme Court Appointments. Democrats worried about losing always talk about nominees to the Court, and Gore is no exception. But what's at stake is more than Roe v. Wade. Many of the achievements of the environmental, labor, safety, and consumer movements are in the cross-hairs of a new style of conservative judicial activism. Conservatives, led by brilliant jurists and intellectuals such as Richard Posner and Richard Epstein, are refining arguments about property rights and states' rights aimed at weakening Congress's ability to pass regulatory legislation.
As Senator Joe Biden warned in a speech earlier this year, "it is now conservative judges who are supplanting the judgment of the people's representatives and substituting their own." Justice David Souter has warned of "a return to the untenable jurisprudence from which the court extricated itself almost 60 years ago." It's worth noting that the legislation in jeopardy includes much of Ralph Nader's life work.
Campaign Finance Reform. Be as skeptical as you want about Gore's promises on this. Bush has been very clear in wanting as part of any campaign-finance changes a "paycheck protection" bill that would radically weaken organized labor's ability to affect elections. That would further tilt the political playing field in the direction of business. It's easy to see why Bush and his fellow conservatives want this, harder to understand why it has little impact outside of labor's immediate circles.
Appointments to the NLRB, the FTC, the FCC, the EPA, the Interior Department, the Energy Department, the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Does anyone think Bush and Gore would appoint the same sorts of people? Does anyone think the results would be the same?
There are many other differences, including how each man would provide a prescription-drug benefit under Medicare and how much each would spend on it. It's clear that regulation of HMOs would be different under each man. The future shape of the overall Medicare program would be different, too. This exchange will no doubt point up other differences.
To their credit, conservative activists understand how high the stakes are in this election. They have given Bush plenty of room to run the sort of campaign he needed to wage to come this close to victory. What's odd is that so many on the liberal and left sides of the debate insist that the election doesn't matter, that the differences between Bush and Gore are negligible.
That may be true for those whose only issue is free trade -- or for others who think all that matters is whether or not a candidate is for sharp cuts in the military budget. It may be true as well for those who discount incremental reforms in health care, Medicare, child care, and education. But for everyone else, it seems foolish to discount the viewpoint of virtually every intelligent conservative in the country on the importance of this contest. However much they like (or dislike) either or both of the candidates, they take Bush and Gore seriously and largely at their word. So should we all.
Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- November 6, 2000
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