The New Republic announced their endorsement of Al Gore for President. This extensive article tells why and illustrates the obvious: George W. Bush is a poor alternative.
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Al Gore for President
by The Editors
Post date 10.19.00 | Issue date 10.30.00
Prevailing opinion deems this year's presidential race a dazzling spectacle that signifies little. One moment commentators marvel at its tactical innovations--the microtargeted messages, the instant rebuttals, the dizzying news cycles, all the technical wonders of the first razor-close campaign of the information age. The next moment they add that both candidates hail from the safe and cynical center and both, to varying degrees, promise a content and unreflective public more of the same. In this campaign, as in so many aspects of American life, the methods of communication are considered exhilarating, while the substance of communication is considered tiresome.
At least that's how many see it today. In retrospect, we suspect, people may look upon this election as one of the defining ideological moments of the post-cold-war era. Bill Clinton, a man with an extraordinary talent for inhabiting both sides of the great disputes of his time, will leave office with basic questions about post-cold-war America unanswered. Ten years after the end of World War II, America had unequivocally entered the cold war. Ten years after the New Deal, the federal welfare state was a fixture of American life. Yet today American foreign policy remains almost as formless as it was the day the Soviet Union fell. And the future of basic components of the American welfare state has rarely been less certain. The Clinton presidency has left a profound cultural legacy--it has exposed tectonic shifts in America's legal, racial, journalistic, and sexual norms. But the deeper imprint on post-cold-war politics may well come from either Al Gore or George W. Bush.
And what a different imprint it would be. The press, accustomed to associating right-wing politics with personal stridency, has largely equated Bush's sunny demeanor with ideological moderation. But on the fundamental questions facing America's next president--will the government ameliorate or exacerbate the chasm between rich and poor at home; will America use its power in service of its ideals abroad--Bush continues the radicalism that has defined his party since his father left the White House. The post-cold-war Republican Party, at its core, sees the struggle against the American welfare state as the moral extension of the struggle against international communism. How else to explain the GOP's decade-long insistence--at a time of weak government and unheard-of prosperity at the top--that this country is blighted by a lack of economic freedom, by those remaining government programs that still redistribute wealth downward? Whether Bush says it or not--indeed, whether he realizes it or not--his campaign continues the assault on those programs that Newt Gingrich began. All year, the media has wondered why GOP conservatives cheerfully accept Bush's symbolic moderation. The answer is that they, unlike many in the press, pay more attention to his policies than to his grin.
Take three of the central domestic policy disputes of this campaign: taxes, Social Security, and Medicare. Bush claims his tax cut primarily benefits the working and middle classes and that its huge windfall for the wealthy is an unavoidable by-product of that effort. But that is transparently false: Bush would cut income and estate taxes, which are highly progressive, while sparing the payroll tax, which falls more heavily on the poor. Bush sometimes says his cuts will stimulate the economy, but the economy can't grow any faster; Alan Greenspan won't let it. The only coherent justification for W.'s tax cut is the one offered by the more ideologically forthright Republicans the Bush campaign keeps offstage: that no matter how great the disparity between America's rich and everyone else, the redistribution of wealth is simply morally wrong.
The same argument underlies Bush's proposals on Social Security and Medicare. On Social Security, Bush says Americans would be better off investing some of their payroll taxes in the stock market. But Social Security provides a low "rate of return" on those taxes in part because it redistributes money to widows, the disabled, and the elderly poor. Bush's plan offers Americans a higher "return" by partially freeing them of their obligation to subsidize the retirements of the less fortunate. Similarly, Bush's Medicare reform, by allowing younger and healthier seniors to pay less for HMOs that offer less treatment, frees them from the obligation to assist the older and sicker elderly, who require more.
Gore's proposals on these issues are not flawless. While some of his tax credits are worthwhile, others look as if they were designed by a focus group. Likewise, Gore has refused to contemplate the reforms of Social Security and Medicare that he ultimately must if those programs are to survive the aging of America's population. And, in a sad irony, his decision to cater to the elderly may have actually hurt him politically by undermining his hard-won reputation as a New Democrat.
But make no mistake: The reforms America needs--reforms that help Social Security and Medicare stay solvent as they fulfill their mission of social insurance--bear no relation to Bush's, which would save money by slowly withdrawing government's commitment to the elderly least able to care for themselves. Gore's plans for spending the surplus--on buttressing Social Security and Medicare, adding a prescription-drug benefit, and reducing the debt--at least recognize the need to extend the fruits of America's economic boom more broadly so the poor and working class continue the modest gains they have made in recent years, thus ensuring social peace. All the multiracial photo-ops in the world cannot conceal the fact that Bush's policies would do exactly the reverse.
On foreign policy, the differences between the two candidates are no less stark. This magazine admired the blunt anti-communism espoused by the Republican Party in the 1980s, a party unafraid to say American ideals were universal and worth fighting for. But how can anyone admire the Republican foreign policy of the post-cold-war era? With a few noble exceptions, the party of Reagan today adamantly denies any moral connection between the imperative to oppose Soviet totalitarianism and the imperative to oppose the newer species of tyranny that have arisen since its demise. For much of the GOP, it turns out, the global struggle for freedom ended sometime around 1989.
To be fair, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney do not share the Buchanan-style isolationism of many of the younger Republican members of Congress. They do not see international commitments as a threat to American liberty or a pollutant of American culture. To his credit, Bush has opposed immigrant-bashing in his party and in his state. But if Bush and Cheney are internationalists, they are internationalists of a distinctly parched sort. They see America as a fairly traditional great power, with "national interests" that closely mirror corporate ones and little responsibility for moral conditions in places where our security is not threatened. Judging from his statements in this campaign, Bush seems happy to see the people of Kosovo or Haiti or East Timor saved from slaughter--as long as they are saved by someone else.
Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, by contrast, are unapologetic about spending money on the military and unapologetic about using it to pursue American ideals. From Iraq to Bosnia to Haiti, both men have shown an unusual willingness to discern the ethical imperatives in foreign policy crises where many in their own party and in the Armed Forces saw only costs, risks, and moral equivalence between oppressors and oppressed. In Israel, as well, Gore is more sensitive than both his opponent and his current boss to the moral asymmetry between an elected government in Jerusalem and a leadership in Gaza City rarely inhibited by the rule of law. In the second debate, when Bush denounced "nation-building" and Gore reminded him that America successfully rebuilt the nations of Western Europe after World War II, the two candidates offered two vastly different models for post-cold-war foreign policy: one that sees the struggle for democracy as detrimental to national security and another that sees it as security's surest guarantee.
But this campaign has not been fought simply on issues; it has also been about "character." In the common formulation, Bush is dim but honest, while Gore is bright but untrustworthy. Fewer journalistic cliches are as stupid. To be sure, Gore is a politician--he panders, he exaggerates. But, under the idiotic rules that have governed media coverage in the final weeks of Campaign 2000, personal anecdotes are tests of truthfulness, while disputes over policy never are. The reality underlying those disputes is that because polls show that Gore's policies generally command greater public support, it is Bush who more frequently misrepresents them and his own. Gore charges that 40 percent of Bush's tax cut goes to the wealthiest 1 percent, and Bush denies it--by leaving his estate tax cut out of the calculation. Bush claims that Gore's prescription-drug plan would force Americans into a "government drug HMO" (i.e., Medicare), when it is actually Bush's proposals that would push the elderly to join HMOs. Bush says the "Senate budget committee" calculates that Gore's spending plans would send America back into deficit, when the calculation comes only from committee Republicans--independent analysts generally view Bush's tax cuts as far more costly.
If the media notes these inaccuracies at all, it treats them as intellectual lapses rather than ethical ones. But doesn't a man who asks for public power and public trust have a moral obligation to be intelligent about public issues? In Texas, after all, Bush's lack of understanding of, or engagement with, the substance of governance has had unmistakable moral effects. After six years as governor, he seems only dimly aware of the appalling quality of legal representation for his state's poor. When asked on "Meet the Press" why he vetoed a bill to require Texas courts to appoint a public defender within 20 days of a defendant's arraignment, Bush said he couldn't remember the legislation. In the second debate, when Gore said Bush used Texas's surplus to provide oil producers with a tax break rather than poor children with health coverage, Bush didn't rebut the charge. Instead, he denounced Gore for implying that "I'm a hard-hearted person." But the point was that a politician's values are only discernible through their application in policy. Moral action takes knowledge and effort; intention is not enough. The Texas governor may genuinely believe that as president he would help America's poor and working-class citizens more than Gore would. The problem, as his feeble response to Gore's criticisms in the third debate made painfully clear, is that he does not understand the issues well enough to accurately judge.
Ultimately, this election may serve as a test of more than just post-cold-war America's policy direction. America faces a choice between a presidential candidate whose persona it enjoys but whose substance it doubts and a candidate whose persona makes it uncomfortable but whose substance is beyond dispute. Al Gore may not be the most charming man in politics, but on many of the critical questions of our time--from his warnings about global warming to his hostility to Slobodan Milosevic, from his insistence on deficit reduction to his support for welfare reform--he has not simply been right, he has been right before much of the rest of the political class even started paying attention. If he loses on November 7, it will not simply set America on an ideological course that we consider perilous and unworthy of our best traditions. It will be a sign that we are not living in a serious age.