A Campaign About Issues

When I studied for my Ph.D. in political science, I was told that presidential campaigns were about—well, not much. People voted on the basis of party loyalty and their view of the competence of the party in power. Campaign advisers were politicians, not experts, and they were not there to write position papers.

This campaign is not one for which my now-ancient learning would have prepared me. It is about two candidates with opposite views on many issues and with detailed, written proposals for how to implement those views, all written by serious people. It is still the case that four out of every five votes were decided the day the campaign started, but the struggle over the remaining one-fifth is intense and interesting.

The great divide is easily stated. Al Gore trusts the government more than he trusts the people, and George Bush trusts the people more than he trusts government. This difference, however, is kept within some broad limits. This is not, after all, a campaign between a socialist and a libertarian; it is one between two men who have accepted the fact of a large government and are arguing over how to improve the way it works and what tasks, if any, such be added to its agenda.

Gore wants to make Medicare bigger and more complicated; Bush wants to help people buy prescriptions outside of Medicare. Gore wants to keep Social Security and add to it another government-funded benefit; Bush wants to privatize part of Social Security without abandoning it as a floor under the incomes of the elderly. Gore wants to spend more money on schools; Bush is willing to do that, but only if some of the money is available for nongovernmental schools. Gore wishes to provide tax breaks to people who act as he prefers; Bush wishes to cut marginal tax rates so people can spend their own money. Gore in principle favors letting churches and synagogues do more to help the poor; Bush wants to work hard to aid them in providing that help.

Both candidates want Washington to do new things, and in fact they agree on many of the things that it ought to do. (They pretty much see eye to eye, for example, on crime and drug abuse.) Whoever is elected, the federal budget will go up. This is especially true because we have a prosperous economy and a reasonable, though far from certain, hope that there will be a continuing budget surplus. Prosperity means that Bush cannot win by simply attacking Clinton and Gore; a surplus means that he cannot win by only promising to do better than his rival. This teaches us an important lesson about democracy. As long as there is money to be spent, candidates will want to spend it.

It also raises a puzzle about the Gore campaign. He certainly has worked hard to take credit for our prosperity. In ordinary times, doing that would have guaranteed his election. When Ronald Reagan ran in 1984, prosperity was enough for him to win more electoral votes than any other presidential nominee in history. When Bush ran in 1988, the voters were willing to let the continuing prosperity carry him into office.

But Gore is not content with taking credit; he also wants to lay blame. He has denounced the oil companies, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, and the motion picture industry. This is odd. Millions of people work for or own shares in these companies. Why attack potential voters?

One obvious reason is that Gore, unlike Reagan in 1984 and Bush in 1988, is not ahead in the polls. He is running, if the polls are to be believed, dead even with Bush. Based on what modern political scientists have learned about elections, he ought to be way ahead in the polls and win comfortably in November. That’s what a strong economy ordinarily does for a candidate of the party that controls the White House. Several of my political-science colleagues have confidently predicted a big Gore victory.

But so far it is not happening. I am not certain why. Perhaps it is because he is a dull campaigner, perhaps it is because of his link to Clinton, perhaps it is because he often misrepresents facts. (All politicians misrepresent things, but Gore does so more frequently than most, and even the pro-Democratic media occasionally note this.) Whatever the reason, Gore is not doing as well in the polls as he ought to. And so the attack strategy may be a way of mobilizing discontented voters who might otherwise stay home or vote for Ralph Nader.  

Or that strategy may in fact tell us something about his character. Perhaps he really dislikes people who are not for him or who might oppose him. This would not be unusual in presidential nominees, or even presidents. Richard Nixon was not kind to his opponents, and neither, I suspect, were several others. That possibility is worth pondering.