Comment: The Stakes

One of the many depressing things about the 2000 election

has been the tactical blurring of principled differences. Al Gore is for patients' rights? So is George W. Bush. Gore has a plan for prescription drug coverage. Bush does, too. Gore would allocate trillions to Social Security. Likewise Bush.

Never mind that Gore's plans are closer to the genuine article. Most voters pay attention only to the headlines. The details are numbing. Bush gets away with seeming to be for popular Democratic positions that most of his party opposes. What the headline promises, the details take back. But the headline is sufficient to steal Gore's thunder.

Of course, Gore plays the same game. Bush believes in tax cuts. So Gore has tax cuts, too. The Republicans favor smaller government. Gore boasts about how much government has been cut since 1993. Republicans have family, faith, and Jesus. Democrats trump them with Joe Lieberman and the Big Guy.

If all this meant there really were

minuscule differences between the parties, that might signal a constructive

era of national consensus. But in fact, the parties really do represent different philosophies of governance. These differences have gotten blurred in a

campaign whose hallmark is that each candidate professes to be much like the other. What's worse, the differences that do exist tend to favor liberal positions, if only they had a compelling champion.

The campaign is distressingly

mechanical. In a tight race, both

Gore and Bush cling to poll-tested phrases and themes that quickly become hackneyed. Both are terrified of wandering off message. Both are prisoners of their technicians; hence, the campaign's tinny ring. The first 50 times Gore

described Bush's tax scheme as "risky," the complaint had some resonance. The scheme is risky, but Gore's compulsive repetition upstaged his message. The first 99 times Gore promised to "fight

for you," he sounded like a fighter. By

the 100th, he sounded punch-drunk. Republican focus groups show that voters are tired of partisan bickering. So Bush, ad nauseam, promises he will work with Democrats and Republicans alike.

Neither man, it seems, trusts himself to ad-lib, perhaps with good reason. A good intuitive politician uses polling to bring voters to his principled beliefs. Bush and Gore use polls to determine what they're supposed to believe.

et the partisan differences

are real, and some of the most important ones have been camouflaged by all the posturing. For example, Bush and Dick Cheney went to great lengths to deny that they would constrain a woman's right to choose to end a pregnancy. Yet neither man has repudiated the Republican platform's opposition to Roe v. Wade. The courts, now closely balanced, would move hard right under Bush.

A broader issue is the future of the labor movement, something barely discussed in the campaign. The unions are now in a long-overdue upswing. Last year, for the first time in four decades, the unionized percentage of the labor force did not decline. Unions are starting to do what the labor movement should have done all along: aggressively organize low-wage workers. The unions are also spearheading coalitions with other progressive groups around such issues as living-wage ordinances, rules for the global trading system, welfare reform that actually supports and rewards work, family benefits, and labor-environmentalist alliances.

While the real energy must be generated on the ground, a friendly or hostile administration in Washington can dramatically affect the grass roots. Clinton made organizing a little easier in multi-ple ways, by appointing progressive labor secretaries and a relatively friendly National Labor Relations Board, resisting repeal of prevailing-wage laws, making sure appropriations for social services left room for decent pay levels, and blocking campaign "reforms" that cripple labor's political action. A Bush administration, seeing labor as the most effective ally of the Democrats, would declare open war. It's not for love of Al Gore that the unions are going all out. This is about survival.

Some clashes that did surface in

the campaign understate the partisan differences. A Republican administration would open the floodgates to school vouchers. A Democratic one would allow relatively narrow charter school experiments and shore up public schools. Other issues too esoteric for the campaign would get radically different treatment under the two men. Many of the most pressing public questions are regulatory. Should we allow cable companies to take over the Internet and offer controlled packages of services that the industry likes to call "walled gardens,"

or preserve and expand free access to any available site? What's true of cable regulation is also true of antitrust regulation, of environmental regulation, and of public versus commercial exploitation of basic science.

All of these far-flung issues have a politics. At bottom, they boil down to

a common question: What in our society should be private and proprietary, and what should be social? This question needs to be repoliticized, not blurred, so that the public can make

informed choices.

A Bush administration would continue the march toward a more privatized society; a Gore administration would provide more of a balance, if a somewhat uncertain one. But these differences have not been teased out in the campaign, much less made compelling. So it is hard to imagine that either outcome would dramatically halt the erosion of politics itself. Whoever wins, that result has to

be bad for the liberal cause, which above all depends on an engaged citizenry and an informed discussion of great issues. Revival of politics is an enterprise beyond this presidential election, which, if anything, has deadened politics. u

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