After one of the emptiest political conventions on record, the stage is actually set for a very consequential November election. Though the Republicans did their best to camouflage it,theirs remains a highly conservative program. There really are enormous differences of substance between the two major candidates.
If the election can be made to turn on issues, it probably cuts in Al Gore's favor. If it turns on atmospherics and personality, the winner will likely be George W. So all eyes now shift to Gore: Can he rouse the electorate to focus on issues? Can he rouse himself to be a plausible messenger? And can the voters grow up?
Watching the Republican National Convention, it was difficult to believe the atmospherics fooled anybody. Writing in The New York Times, editorialist Brent Staples referred to the over-representation of black and brown symbols at a mostly white party as Minstrelsy.
The real divisions within the GOP over issues such as abortion rights were denied prime airtime. Everything was scripted and vetted. This was the sort of a party convention that you'd expect in an authoritarian country, where there is no brooking of public dissent.
For the most part audiences tuned out. Real entertainment proved more compelling than politics masquerading as entertainment. Whenever the networks cut from sitcoms and game shows to the convention, viewers hit the remote.
Yet voters raised in a media age do pay attention to atmospherics. Though the Republicans have sponsored wrenching cuts in public services, the Republican convention could give prime air time to a single mother from Arkansas, thereby signaling that in their hearts (if not their budgets) they really care. Despite the P.T. Barnum quality of the convention, Bush will likely get his anticipated bounce in the polls.
If the voters do pay attention to issue differences, it will probably not be until after Labor Day. Here are several worth watching:
. Bush wants a massive cut in personal income taxes and an elimination of the estate tax. Most of the benefit would go to the richest Americans. Gore's tax cuts would be smaller and more narrowly targeted to working families.
If Gore is shrewd, he wont just let the issue be posed as a choice between different kinds of tax cuts, but between different uses of the budget surplus. Do we want the most affluent two percent of taxpayers (those who pay estate tax at all) to get a tax holiday or should we use that $30-50 billion a year to provide, say, universal prescription drug benefits under Medicare?
. Though Bush hasn't spelled out the details, he would divert a portion of the payroll tax to new private retirement accounts. Though billed, erroneously, as helping to shore up the system, by definition the effect must be to leave Social Security with smaller reserves. There are only three possible consequences. Either retired people are left with smaller Social Security checks or government must borrow money to make then system whole. Or government must raise taxes.
Gore, by contrast, would allocate most of the surplus to making the system whole, and some of it to a new system of optional private accounts. But these would be a supplement to Social Security, not a diversion from it.
. Here, differences could not be greater. The Democrats want tough regulation of managed care plans, so that doctors can make medical decisions and patients can sue insurance plans that make deadly mistakes when they try to play doctor. The Republicans have proposed a reform that was written by the insurance industry.
On drug coverage, the Bush camp proposes to let those same private insurers offer supplemental drug coverage, most of which would still end up being paid out of pocket. Gore and the Democrats want supplemental coverage under Medicare.
In case you didn't catch it at the GOP's extended infomercial, there are also very significant differences between the two candidates on abortion, gay rights, and affirmative action. And in every case, these differences are principled ones, about which reasonable people can differ.
If you think that government has no business meddling in your life (except in your bedroom), you should probably vote for Bush. If you think some important things cannot be trusted solely to private profit, Gore is probably your man.
Neither of these guys is a prize personally. Neither would be where they are without famous fathers. Even so, putting aside the fluff and the spin, we will be making a very momentous decision this election year. Let's hope we pay attention.