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If Al Gore had said some of the things George W. Bush has been saying, the Wall Street Journal editorial page would be having fits, and the Heritage Foundation broadside-o-matic machines would be churning with outrage. In a single mid-June speech on disabilities, Bush promised to “triple the current funding” for disability research; to create a “technology transfer fund” that would subsidize small-business efforts to adapt for the handicapped; to “spend $20 million” buying computers so that disabled workers can telecommute; to “swiftly implement the recently passed ‘Ticket-to-Work’ law,” which apparently allows people to keep their disability benefits after taking a job; to “seek $10 million each year” to build wheelchair ramps in “churches, synagogues, and mosques,” and on and on.
More than the money itself, it’s the laundry-list rhetoric—here’s every problem you can think of (and a few you never thought of), and here’s my plan to throw money at it—that ought to offend conservative ideologues but doesn’t seem to. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress race the Democrats to enact a Medicare drug benefit, which, even in the more stinting Republican version, would be the biggest new social welfare program in a generation.
In another recent speech outlining his alleged philosophy of government, Bush performed a series of Democratic-presidential-candidate impersonations. He started off sounding like early Clinton of the “reinventing government” period: “In Pennsylvania, Governor Ridge has reformed government contracting. … Indianapolis has put 80 municipal services [somewhere or other].” Soon he was doing a pretty good Michael “Swedish-Land-Use-Planning” Dukakis: professing indignation that the Commerce Department claims to be in compliance with something called the Government Performance and Results Act “if performance is at just two-thirds of the target level.” He ultimately regressed to Jimmy Carter, calling (as Carter did) for “sunset” laws requiring agencies to be reauthorized every few years. Did Carter also call for creation of a “Sunset Review Board”? Perhaps that is a Bush innovation.
The premise of this kind of government reform is that government should be doing more, not less. In his speech text, Bush calls for more government half a dozen times. His only reference to the possibility of less government is accusing the Clinton administration of failing to “ask fundamental questions” about what government does, including “whether it should be doing it at all.” But he gives no evidence of asking the question himself. Bush says his own “vision” is “guided by three principles: government should be citizen-centered, results-oriented, and, wherever possible, market-based.” The first two are near-meaningless bromides. The third—market forces—has meaning, but it’s procedural. It may help in deciding how the government should get involved, but not whether. If Bush has a theory to distinguish his thinking on this “fundamental issue” from Al Gore’s—or even George McGovern’s—he is keeping it to himself.
So why is it left to me to point this out? Where are the voices of conservatism, quoting the anti-government wisdom of Ronald Reagan? Obviously Gore would be even worse from their point of view. But the virtual total silence on the right about Bush’s sins against the true faith is an impressive triumph of political discipline over intellectual honesty. Call it a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy of Silence. What they don’t say is better evidence that such a conspiracy exists than what they do say.
In a way, I sympathize. Eight years ago I wrote in a column, “I’m for Clinton—just don’t tell me anything about him.” Democrats were tired of losing and not inclined to be fussy. You can’t blame Republicans for feeling that way now. In 1992, liberals ignored their man’s reputation for personal and political character flaws because he looked like a winner. More than that: Those flaws had something to do with making him look like a winner. This year conservatives are ignoring their man’s reputation for being dim and his ideological apostasy because he looks like a winner. And, once again, it’s more than that: The apostasy (if not the dimness) is part of what makes him look like a winner.
Viewed from the outside, this is all quite wonderful. For eight years, the conservative explanation of Bill Clinton has been: “He’s a dangerous left-winger who stole all our ideas.” Slightly self-contradictory, but true enough in that moving his party and himself rightward helped Clinton to win. It’s also true that for more like 28 years than merely eight, the Democrats—lacking confidence in the popularity of their own values—have tended on many issues to take the dispiriting line, “We’re just like the other guys, only less so.”
Now, though, it is the Republican nominee who is patently stealing ideas from the other side. And the GOP is the party that seems to be afraid the voters won’t buy its own principles, So, it is offering a watered-down version of the other side’s principles instead.
Maybe this is just the yin and yang of democracy. The parties take turns establishing and then compromising their principles. Once-radical ideas are enacted into law by the party that courageously fights for them, but they are absorbed into the mainstream by the party that cravenly borrows them. For liberals who’ve been coming to terms with conservative ideas for three decades, conservatives’ silent acceptance of George W. Bush’s many betrayals is Bill Clinton’s final gift.