Two nights ago, this undecided voter decided to read the New Republic’s editorial endorsing Al Gore. It didn’t help.
The endorsement was no surprise, but its strident, old-style domestic liberalism was. Bush, the editors charged, “continues the radicalism that has defined his party,” which is marked by “assault” on “those remaining government programs that still redistribute wealth downwards.” Why the reflexive implication that redistributive programs have been sharply cut? Many such programs–especially the now-huge Earned Income Tax Credit but also Medicaid for indigent children–have been radically expanded, and Republicans have more or less stopped assaulting them. Tom DeLay was publicly chastised by Bush the last time he tried to cut the EITC. Some House Republicans have even begun to boast that they’ve created a new safety net for the working poor–a net that Bush proposes expanding, however inadequately, with his means-tested prescription drug program.
The New Republic also says the “fundamental question facing America’s next president” is the “chasm between rich and poor at home”–by which, it becomes clear, TNR means the income chasm. What about lousy schools (for everyone), the underclass, the race problem (once a TNR obsession), the restoration of civility to the common life–the preservation of a common life itself?
All in all, this was not a well-targeted pitch for a waffling neolib of Old New Republic persuasion. If this is what Gore is about …
Fortunately, Gore himself seems to recognize it isn’t what he’s about, because on Tuesday he gave a speech clearly designed to move his candidacy toward the center. It was a bit clumsy–Gore seemed to conflate the size of government with the size of the government’s debt, stressing that he would pay down the latter. But in general the speech cast Gore in a less clichéd light. He touched my erogenous zone, boasting he “fought to reform welfare with real time limits and work requirements, which helped to cut the welfare rolls in half.” More generally, he made
this clear pledge: as president, I will not add to the number of people doing work for the federal government–not by even one position. And there will be more who leave those ranks than the ones who are replaced.
Two points regarding this pledge, which was mocked for no discernible reason by Salon’s Jake Tapper: First, it is clear, and therefore enforceable. Second, it seems to cover not only government employees but also government contractors, consultants, and grantees. Usually politicians promise to control the size of the federal work force, but then they just hire lots of consultants and independent contractors to get around that pledge. Gore denies himself this escape hatch–at least that’s what his aides told the Washington Post. Sure, government can still be meddlesome even if there are only a few bureaucrats doing the meddling. Sure, government can get too “big” without increasing the number of federal workers–for example, Gore’s “Retirement Savings Plus” program of subsidized savings (a good idea) might only take a few employees to administer, but it could if implemented recklessly involve such high expenditures that it burdens future generations. But better for Gore to have made his work force promise than not to have made his promise. It’s a plus for Gore.
In theory, that should have put Gore back in the lead of my personal horse race. So why, then, when the notoriously moody Gallup/CNN/USA Today tracking poll came out showing Bush surging ahead by five did I inwardly smile? This tendency to guiltily savor Gore’s setbacks while professing to like him is something I’ve noticed in myself for some time. There are several possible explanations. One is that I’m an asshole. But I favor an alternative theory: I’m a committed Democrat. I only recently, belatedly, realized this. Let me explain.
Clinton’s well-known achievement (a completely self-conscious one, if you read Michael Waldman’s POTUS Speaks) has been to pare away most of the excesses of the liberalism of the Carter-Reagan years–most significantly on the welfare issue but also on crime, defense, and fiscal responsibility. This has had the effect of making America safe again for affirmative government. But until now, as David Brooks notes in the current Newsweek, Gore hasn’t been running as a Clintonian New Democrat. He’s been running as a Bob Shrum us-against-them populist.
This left strategy isn’t–can’t be–just a means to get elected. Even if Gore is cynical about it (and I’m not sure he is), a Gore victory would still validate us-against-them populism as the governing philosophy of the Democrats. The press would pitch the election as a victory for the AFL-CIO, for the teachers’ unions, for pollster Stanley Greenberg’s complicated hide-the-ball redistributionist plots, for a world view that tells Americans the most important things in their polity are the “mysterious forces” of the rich and powerful that “stand in their way” as opposed to common problems (including the problem of preserving social equality) we all face. Of course, New Democrats could always argue that Gore won because of peace and prosperity, not populism–but we’d lose. The left has the loudest voices. The Democratic Party would gain the White House, but my faction would lose the Democratic Party, and I’m not sure it’s worth it.
On the other hand, if Gore loses, the paleo populists will get the blame. (They’ll try to scapegoat Gore’s personality, but they’ll only be half-successful at this.) That’s the prospect I’m inwardly smiling at whenever Bush jumps ahead in the polls.
But wouldn’t it do the Republicans an analogous amount of good to spend four years in the wilderness, shedding more of their intolerant, anti-government, inegalitarian tendencies? Of course! I think if Bush loses, the GOP is due for a shattering reassessment; the party may even collapse for a while. Eventually, something will emerge that is stronger and more centrist. But I don’t care. I’m not a Republican; I can only barely imagine a Republican Party that would be the vehicle of my hopes and dreams.
My best hope is that the Democrats will eventually get it right. Which is why I sometimes want them to lose.
There. Glad I got that off my chest! I feel better already. Gore rises 10 points.
Actually, wait a minute. It says here in the New York Post that Gore “early-on raised with HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo the idea of his becoming chief of staff” in a Gore White House. Cuomo’s a thuggish self-promoter. Make that five points.