Kausfiles Special

Don’t Rush Me! (Part 1)

My friends don’t understand why I’m an undecided voter. “You’re not an ill-informed mush-head like the voters we see interviewed on TV,” they say, which is nice of them. It seems we undecideds, after being overcelebrated, are suffering from something of a press backlash. The New Republic’s Michelle Cottle calls undecided voters “the least-informed, least-politically-savvy, least-rational voters around.” The Washington Post’s Tom Shales says they are “doofus-heavy.” Hey, you’ talkin’ to me!

My friends also say, “You’re a Democrat,” which is true. I do think we need affirmative government to provide benefits and services and, more generally, to help achieve the traditional American goal of social equality–the equality of all citizens, rich and poor, in the eyes of each other. (I once wrote a book about it. So there, Cottle.)

Which leads to the third thing my friends say: “What’s wrong with Gore?” Actually, I don’t think there’s all that much wrong with Gore. His personal style is often condescending–an expression of social inequality. (If he were really an egalitarian, his slogan wouldn’t be “I want to fight for you.” It would be “I want to fight for us.”) This patronizing affect may cost him the election, but I’m not convinced it represents his true inner self. And I have no doubt that, of the two candidates, he’d be more competent at doing the executive work of the presidency.

Michael Waldman’s new memoir of the Clinton White House, POTUS Speaks, reinforced this conclusion in my mind. “Usually Clinton vented his temper, and Gore punctured it with humor,” writes Waldman; that’s probably the opposite of what most voters would guess. More important, Gore was a force behind some of the most successful moves of the Clinton presidency. As Joe Klein reports in his recent New Yorker piece, Gore told Clinton he should sign the welfare reform bill the Republicans sent him, arguing “It’s worth the risk.” Gore astutely advised a firm stand against Newt Gingrich in the government-shutdown confrontation. According to Waldman, Gore was also one of the first to urge the successful “Save Social Security First” strategy for avoiding a big tax cut:

Gore saw immediately the strength of posing Social Security against a tax cut. He was acutely aware of the power of the big play, the strength that comes from drawing an unwavering line on the ground–in many ways, more so than Clinton.

At times, it’s possible to even work oneself up into a state of enthusiasm over the prospect of President Gore.

So why not just support him? Because it’s not that easy! The right question, for a truly conscientious, informed, rational, non-doofusy voter, isn’t which candidate would make a better president in the abstract. The question is which candidate will, under the circumstances likely to prevail when he’s elected, produce the best result for the nation. The questions are different, most obviously, because the president isn’t the only elected official with power over national policy. Policy is produced largely by the interaction of the president and Congress.

There’s the rub with Gore, or the first rub, anyway. Because it’s not clear that the interaction of Gore with a Democratic Congress wouldn’t produce more mischief than progress. While Clinton tried to move the “presidential” Democratic Party to the reformist center, Congressional Democrats remained largely unreconstructed. It was Congressional Democrats, remember, who stopped campaign finance reform in the Clinton years. (Waldman has chapter and verse on this.) It was the Congressional Dems who opposed NAFTA, who wanted a “stimulus package” rather than deficit-cutting in Clinton’s first budget. It was Congressional Democrats (as Klein confirms) who opposed any sort of attempt to fix the failed welfare system, insisting that Clinton pursue health care first in what was the worst mistake–make that the worst policy mistake–of Clinton’s presidency. Most of what Clinton has achieved has been achieved despite, rather than because of, the Congressional Dems.

If the Democrats win the House, most of the important committee chairmanships would go to unreconstructed liberals with seniority, not to Clintonesque New Democrats. Charles Rangel would chair the Ways and Means Committee; John Conyers would chair Judiciary; John Dingell would chair Commerce; and Pete Stark would get the Joint Economic Committee. Welfare reform would be the first to go. Rangel is too smart to mount a frontal assault on the law, but the many House Democrats who despise it (especially since it seems to be succeeding) could effectively undermine it with a few, little-noticed changes that make extended stays on welfare more possible and work requirements more difficult to enforce. (For example, they could make creating public service “workfare” jobs, which unions hate, difficult by forbidding them wherever a union member might do the work.) Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who this summer so effectively mau-maued Joe Lieberman on affirmative action, says she has a “big housing agenda” planned–and she’ll chair the relevant subcommittee. With Conyers, we’d see more of the anti-crime bills that, as one sophisticated liberal once described them to me, dole out money to Democratic mayors and other interest groups in ways less effective than “dropping bundles of money out of an airplane flying over Detroit in the middle of the night.”

Gore has so far not shown an inclination to stand up to the Congressional Democrats or to the constituency groups they champion. One of Gore’s flaws, a reporter who supports him told me, is that unlike Clinton, he finds it difficult not to pander all the way. Clinton is so skilled he can win the support of blacks or labor while cramming welfare reform and NAFTA down their throats. He’ll give a speech, and the interest group will cheer, thinking he’s on their side–only later noticing he’s promised nothing. Gore, who doesn’t have Clinton’s gift, feels he actually has to make the promises and deliver on them. (It’s here that the insecurity underlying his boastful “fibs” has some bite.) His education plan is a gift to the teachers’ unions–lots of money for schools and pay raises, but only new teachers will be tested. His support for affirmative action is so ardent that he even defends the Federal Communications Commission’s “tax certificate” program allowing minorities to buy radio and TV stations at a discount and then immediately resell them to big corporations–a program so notorious it was one of the few racial preferences ended on Clinton’s watch.

Would Bush be any better? Good question. One reason I’m undecided is that I don’t know the answer. Bush’s father, after all, was easily rolled by the House Democrats. But on the issue I know most about, welfare, I do think his son would be firmer. Bush Sr. had no apparent interest in the subject, but Bush Jr. has personally lobbied in Texas for a welfare provision–the “full family sanction”–that you wouldn’t support if you didn’t really understand the system. (For an explanation see this earlier article on the subject).

What if the Republicans keep control of both houses of Congress? Isn’t there a parallel risk in letting them loose on the tax code, on Social Security, on the environment, unchecked by a Democratic president? You bet. Deciding whether to vote for Bush or Gore isn’t a yes/no, up/down decision, then. It demands a matrix! Here it is:

A quick explanation of these ratings:

Upper Left–Gore/Democratic Congress: “Risky” for the reasons given above. But may offer a better chance at some necessary expansions of government–e.g. health insurance for the uninsured.

Lower Left–Gore/Republican Congress: This configuration has prevailed for the past six years and has served the country well–Good Gridlock, you might call it. As commentator Walter Shapiro pointed out in a seminal article years ago, a divided government with a Democratic executive tends to produce fiscal responsibility because the Democratic president keeps defense spending in check while the Republican Congress keeps social spending in check.

Upper Right–Bush/Democratic Congress: This is Not-So-Good Gridlock because (as Shapiro noted) it tends to promote rather than restrain spending. The Republican executive builds up defense while Congressional Dems protect and expand social programs. When we had this array during the Reagan years, it produced “deficits as far as the eye can see.” On the positive side, presumably Bush would be able to block the worst excesses of the paleoliberal House Dems.

Lower Right–Bush/Republican Congress: Mindless cuts in capital gains taxes, threats to sensible environmental and business regulations, educational choice plans that may reinforce class segregation. But a better chance to preserve welfare reform.

According to this handy matrix, Gore’s election (the left vertical column) yields the best possibility, or one of the worst possibilities. Bush’s election (the right column) offers only an OK possibility, or the other worst possibility. That would seem to give the edge to Gore–if the odds were even on who will control the Congress, or more specifically the House. (Why focus on the House? Because the Senate is always more of a bipartisan ball of mush with 100 separate voices. The House is more disciplined, so party control means more.)

Alas, the odds aren’t necessarily even. House Republicans seem doomed to me, for the simple reason that (aside from ending the “death tax”) they don’t have all that much more to say these days that appeals to the voters. The main issues that might have some anti-Democratic bite–race preferences and school choice–are issues House Republicans seem scared to bring up. Instead, they’re trying to cling to power by aping their opponents’ policies on prescription drugs and patients’ rights. When this happens, the party clinging to power usually loses it pretty rapidly. I expect a Democratic House majority–if not in this election, then the next.

In fact, last Wednesday, Congressional Quarterly made its best guess at predicting all the contested Congressional races, and it estimated that the Democrats would gain just enough seats–seven–to retake the majority. Which means it’s likely that we’ll be on the top line of the decision matrix, with Gore as a “risky” president and Bush as an “OK” choice.

I was leaning heavily toward Gore, but his rating, for this undecided voter, just dipped about 20 percent.