This edition will be devoted entirely to thoughts I have been collecting over the past several months about the Presidential election. First, I should come clean with my bias. None of you are likely to be shocked by my admission that I am a supporter of George W. Bush. So what else is new? But far beyond partisanship, the critical point is that this election is not about who gets what; it’s not about the minutia of policy; it’s about who we are.
What do I mean? No less an authority than Bill Clinton has said that this election is the most ideological since at least 1980. For one of the few instances, I agree with him. For the political left, if the Democrats cannot keep control of the executive branch, the ideological foundation of statist policy that has dominated political discourse since the Great Depression is at stake. For those of us who saw the Reagan Revolution as a watershed return of conservative values, it is a test of the validity of that optimism. I believe we are entering a transforming period in our country’s existence during which we will be forced to answer some defining questions about ourselves. Will we continue to be a society that is guided by morally ordered liberty under the rule of law? Can people who have learned that they can vote themselves prosperity sustain a republic? Is civic republicanism worth saving? Can it be saved? Do we care? Can we still reach for that distinctive American idealism that says it’s more important to live nobly than to live well? Frankly, as I have observed the events of the past several years, I am fearful of the answers to these questions.
Having said all that, there are major ideological issues at stake and huge differences between Al Gore and George W. Bush that should be made clear. After Gore’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, commentator Chris Matthews said that Gore’s platform was “a program designed for the special pleaders about the particulars of what’s in it for me, a policy wonk speech with no great themes.” Peggy Noonan commented that the speech could have been given by Walter Mondale in 1984 or Edward Kennedy in 1980. On the other hand, Bush’s convention speech, if you listened carefully, acknowledged that politics at its most basic level is a duel between competing belief structures, a clash of cultures. And he’s right. Gore would have us return to the progressive ideology of the early 1900’s espoused by Herbert Croly and John Dewey, a collectivized marshaling of government power as the only bulwark of the weak against mysterious “powerful forces”. George Melloan has called this tendency of the Democrats the socialization of risk and the politics of fairness (as they define it). The Republicans at their best have traditionally countered with the politics of individualism, grounded in the Christian teaching that each person is a unique creature with inalienable rights, answerable only to God. Bush has to an extent melded the two with his theme of compassionate conservatism. I must add that I find this term redundant because conservatism, properly understood, is compassionate, but Bush’s point is that there is no inherent conflict between individualism and compassion. This will sell as long as he keeps the primacy of property rights the centerpiece of the campaign and remembers the huge investor class that has been created by the democracy of the market.
This clash of collectivism (or paternalism) vs. individualism (I prefer empowerment) in all its nuances, however simplified I have made it here, works its way into almost every domestic policy difference between the candidates. Take one example, income taxes. The difference in Bush’s tax rate cut proposal and Gore’s targeted tax cuts involves much more than the details of how to distribute a projected surplus. The argument is a moral one and, so far, it has been entirely debated on economic terms. Bush’s version, based as it is on supply-side economics, wins the economic argument, but the more important argument is that tax policy helps determine the nature and character of civilized society and whether private property will have primacy over statism. Gore’s tax proposal pits constituent groups against each other and puts the government even more in the business of doling out favors. I could go on to Medicare and Social Security, school choice, and other domestic issues—paternalism vs. empowerment.
Another key ideological divide concerns what many have called “honor” in public life. Here we have one candidate (Gore) who believes that honor and moral authority reside in the policies a leader advocates and one (Bush) whose conviction is that honor means duty to the law, the truth, and the integrity of the office aside from policy preferences. For one, policy and politics trump morality, for the other, the reverse is true. Another unfortunate legacy of Clintonism that should be defeated is the concept that politics trumps honor. Some journalists have written that this election is shaping up as a ratification of Clintonism no matter who wins. I hope not. In fact, I believe Bush can win only if he successfully draws a sharp distinction between his philosophy and style of leadership and that of the Clinton/Gore years. Large portions of the Republican Party, particularly business interests, are not comfortable with culture clashes and ideological crusades, but this remains an essentially conservative country, and he must make the case for individualism/empowerment over collectivism/paternalism, responsibility over victimhood, excellence over mediocrity, and morality over politics.
The idea has been floated that the party that loses the 2000 Presidential election will be subjected to massive reorientation. Both parties have “crazy aunts in the attic” in terms of issues that dare not dominate their campaigns at the risk of alienating their respective bases. In a parliamentary system, there would probably be half a dozen contending U. S. political parties. A truly “big tent” for each means that they must meet in the middle to get elected. As a result, gridlock may be with us for awhile yet. The problem is that we have a tendency to defer to the judiciary on many of the contentious domestic issues (see “The End of Democracy Debate”, Sept. 2000) and muddle through on the economic issues (globalization, etc.). Unfortunately, this makes Supreme Court appointments a major issue in Presidential campaigns, never more crucial than in this one, given the current configuration of the Court and the prospect of what four to eight years of Gore appointments would do to the rule of constitutional law. Again, it’s all about who we are.