Kausfiles Special

Don’t Rush Me! (Part 3)

Nobody can believe I’m still undecided. “The election’s six days away,” friends note helpfully. “You’d better make up your mind soon.”

No! These people have obviously failed to fully internalize the lesson of the Feiler Faster Thesis–which is, briefly, that because the public now comfortably processes information about candidates more swiftly, there is room for a vastly greater density of plot twists in any given span of electoral time. After writing Gore off last spring, and proclaiming Bush “toast” after the convention, and then writing off Gore again last week–only to realize over the weekend that he still might win–you’d think everyone would have wised up. Today–Nov. 1–the question shouldn’t be whether Gore has time to come back, but whether Gore has time to come back, fall behind again, and come back yet again before Tuesday. Kausfiles says yes!

There’s also plenty of time for me to make up my mind. So back off, all of you!

One problem I face is that I tend to be what legislators call a “pillow”–I retain the impression of the last person who talked to me. At a cocktail party, a fellow centrist explains her vote to me: “I figure Bush is in hock to the oil companies. Gore is in hock to the teachers’ unions, the civil rights lobby, and the trial lawyers. I realized I’m just not that interested in the things the oil companies care about. So I’m voting for Bush.” Sounds tightly reasoned to me! … A friend gives me a ride in her car and points out that Gore favored welfare reform and stood up to Big Labor on NAFTA. So why was I so sure he would cave in to Charles Rangel on workfare? Hmmm. Good point! … Another friend, an experienced European policy person with neoliberal tendencies, e-mails to reinforce my fears about rewarding Gore’s Shrum\Greenberg populism: “If Gore runs from the left he’ll be left with little choice but to govern from there too. One of the biggest restrictions on Clinton was that he felt that being an Old Democrat was a vote loser. God save us from a president whose advisers have persuaded him it’s a vote winner and demonstrated it by winning!”

If only my decision could be reduced to a simple, head-to-head contest. Searching for such a template, I turn to the Washington Post, which has recently printed two long pieces on Bush’s, and Gore’s, style of policy-making. I decide I’ll read them both–and may the best policy-maker win.

Gore first. John Harris’excellent piece from last Sunday isn’t exactly a plus for the vice president. It’s the sort of find-the-fatal-flaw analysis that got written about Jimmy Carter about halfway through his unsuccessful term. Gore’s fatal flaw seems to be intellectual insecurity, which comes across as both arrogance and a “need to impress.” Gore “‘always needs to prove that he knows more than anyone else in the room,’” Harris is told by one source and “at least a half-dozen other people who have worked closely with Gore.”

“He has trouble trusting someone who by the very fact that Al Gore is in the room is by definition not the smartest person in the room,” said one veteran of Gore’s White House team. “Does that make him a pain in the ass, or does it inspire good performance?”

Pain in the ass! Gore, as portrayed by Harris, sounds like a quite unpleasant man to work for. He never discusses the “full range of factors” with any one aide, reserving that complete knowledge only for himself. “I would never go in and say, ‘Here’s my hunch,’ ” says a policy aide, Greg Simon. “If he wants a hunch he’ll go off by himself.” This seems crazy. An aide with good hunches is what you need! Gore is taking a huge burden on his shoulders.

On the other hand, name a decision he’s screwed up. You can point to some small- to medium-sized ones: the “supercar” project, the 1993 energy tax, maybe even the “no controlling authority” press conference. But you can also point to a string of big ones he got right. (Here are six: 1) 1993 deficit cutting, 2) NAFTA, 3) welfare reform, 4) Bosnia, 5) the budget confrontation with Newt, 6) Lieberman.) Anyway, I don’t have to work for him, just vote for him!

And the Post’s corresponding Bush piece isn’t exactly encouraging, though Dan Balz and Terry Neal strain to be balanced. Bush, someone who sat in on GOP defense strategy meetings says, “is more interested in detail” than Reagan was. Wow! Confronted with an inadequate tax plan, Bush tells his advisers, “You guys are smart guys. Go back and solve it.” In Texas, he “allowed Democrats to massage his own proposals to the point they are barely recognizable–and barely conservative.” (Let’s hope Chairman Rangel didn’t read that paragraph.) Most important, he relies excessively on personal charm, which worked in Texas–where Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock was a powerful Democratic ally. According to Tucker Carlson’s Talk profile, Bush famously won over Bullock when the latter said he’d have to support a bill Bush opposed, and Bush stood up, grabbed him by the shoulders, and kissed him, saying, “If you’re going to fuck me you’ll have to kiss me first.” Somehow I don’t think that will work with Dick Gephardt.

Even more famously, in Texas, Bush focused on a few initiatives. He’d supposedly do the same as president. Which initiatives? According to the Post: 1) a “big tax cut,” 2) “emphasis on educational accountability and excellence,” 3) “bold reforms of Social Security and Medicare,” and 4) “a desire to rebuild the military.” But it’s becoming pretty clear that No. 3, and possibly No. 1, aren’t going to happen in Bush’s first term. Our constitutional system is designed to not produce big changes, and it works as designed. A closely divided Congress, susceptible to senior pressure, absent a funding crisis, isn’t about to be charmed into partially privatizing Social Security. Nor is it likely to give Bush his tax cut, at least without “massaging” it beyond recognition–and that’s assuming it was more than a campaign document to begin with. Didn’t Reagan get his big cut, you ask? Yes, he did. And the collective memory of the deficits that resulted is one reason Bush will have to scale back his.

Bush’s incipient failures might be victories for sound public policy–so his prospective inability to get what he wants may perversely make him more attractive. But that’s hardly enough to resolve my voter’s dilemma. Mainly it underscores my instinct of last week: that, at least legislatively, four years of relative gridlock wouldn’t be such an awful thing. There’s simply no great wrenching statutory change being pressed by either candidate that is so damn urgent it simply has to be accomplished in the next presidential term. The exception might be education, where there is no large federal role yet.

Eventually, of course, big things need to be done–on Social Security and health care, at least–probably by a unified government controlled by one party. At the moment, though, it seems more important to prepare my party, the Democrats, for that day by squelching once and for all the comic-book economic populism of the left. Whether Gore’s defeat would accomplish that or not is something I need to obsess about for a few more days.

Meanwhile, the default principle remains “do no harm”–which, for the reasons discussed earlier, translates into “preserve gridlock.” Two alarming recent developments on this front militate against Gore.

First, the congressional Republicans have somehow convinced themselves that they’ll be helped by a budget impasse with President Clinton. They are said to believe that time is too short, and the stage too crowded, for Clinton to get his message out. But the Feiler Faster Thesis says there’s almost always time to get your message out–and Clinton’s already doing it, with some success, just as the voters start to really pay attention. He was on the front page of the New York Times yesterday. Republicans also tell themselves that they lost seats in 1998 not because of impeachment but because they caved in on spending and alienated the right. “Impeachment had nothing to do with us losing seats,” said Tom DeLay, the GOP majority whip. That’s probably what he’ll be saying when he’s minority whip.

Not only does the House now seem more likely to go Democratic, but the authoritative Charles Cook of National Journal reports that the Senate is now back in play (in part because the deceased governor of Missouri may unseat Sen. Ashcroft). All of which means it’s now likelier that a President Gore will be governing in tandem with committees in both houses that will be controlled by the Democrats. Do I want to rely on my friend’s hope that Gore will be tough with Rangel? Not really. Bush rises by 5 percent.

But I haven’t decided. I’m nowhere near decided. What’s more, the decision increasingly seems to depend on what everyone else decides, something that may not become apparent until the last minute. And it won’t just depend on the expected vote for the House and Senate–it may also depend on the vote for Nader, and even the vote for, yes, Hillary. I’ll try to confront those possibilities in future installments.

The night is young!