Will a conservative or liberal agenda be at the center of national politics during the next four years? No matter how centrist George W. Bush and Al Gore sound, that is what the fall election is still fundamentally about. Conservatives seem to understand the choice and have lined up behind Bush. Many liberals don't and are withholding their support from Gore. If that ambivalence persists--according to polls through July, Gore draws less support from Democrats than Bush does from Republicans--it could signal low turnout, defections to Nader, and disaster for the Democrats in November, with enormous consequences for the future.
A Bush victory will give conservative causes new momentum and throw liberals on the defensive. Liberals will spend the next four years fighting a series of rearguard battles against regressive tax cuts, the privatization of Social Security and education, and the rollback of environmental and other protective regulations. In the Reagan-Bush era, liberals had considerable leverage through their power in Congress and the courts, but that will be much diminished in a Bush restoration. Indeed, Bush's appointments to the Supreme Court will likely tip the balance on such closely fought issues as affirmative action and reproductive rights, and further embolden the Court's conservatives in their crusade to limit federal powers. It will be a long time before liberals can again count on the courts to be a progressive force.
If Gore wins and the Democrats retake Congress, they will not necessarily enact landmark progressive legislation--that is not the mood of the country, and there is no prospect of gaining the requisite majorities in either the House or the Senate. But with the federal surplus growing, there will be running room for new initiatives, even with Gore's commitment to pay down the federal debt. If anyone had doubt about the material differences between the parties, the battles over taxes and Social Security during the past two years should have clarified the picture. The Republican initiatives--most egregiously, the repeal of the estate tax--represent massive redistribution in favor of the wealthy. The Democratic initiatives--Gore's Social Security proposals, for example--provide far more benefit to people with low and moderate incomes. The press and the public may not see the election as a decision for or against more inequality, but that is what is partly at stake.
Are we prepared to do anything significant for the people prosperity has left behind? America may be somewhat complacent today, but it is also more tolerant and less angry. The fears of the Cold War have quieted, racial hostilities have eased, crime is down, and the culture wars have subsided. This is not the worst climate for reforms that appeal to Americans' generosity and long-term collective interests. If the Democrats sweep, a Democratic House will likely prod and push Gore to take advantage of the historical moment. And even if Gore wins but Democrats don't retake either house of Congress, there will be opportunities for tactical progressive advances, as there have been under Clinton. The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and increase in the minimum wage in Clinton's first term exemplify the material difference that the Democrats can make.
The divided government and constricted politics of the past eight years have given us few such achievements. But if liberals are frustrated with the record of the Clinton presidency, they ought to consider how conservatives are dealing with their political disappointments. When the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, conservatives thought they would radically reduce federal spending, curtail the powers of the EPA and other regulatory agencies, stop or at least limit abortion, eliminate affirmative action, and pass a series of amendments to the Constitution to require a balanced budget, ban flag burning, and impose congressional term limits. Six years later, thanks largely to Clinton, hardly any of this has happened. Conservatives have made even less progress in their efforts to change the culture; on gay rights, the trend has been entirely against them. And in the defeat that many on the right saw as the culmination of their political disappointments, they failed to win public support for Clinton's impeachment.
But, far from souring on the Republicans, conservatives have concluded that the rhetorical concessions and soft touch of a Bush may be more effective than the rhetorical bravura and hard edge of a Gingrich. They know that if they are to make any headway at all, they need to have a president who will be responsive to their concerns and send conservative nominees to the bench. Not unreasonably, they hope that with the presidency and Supreme Court on their side, the path will finally be clear for much of their long-stalled agenda.
Curiously, many liberals do not seem to have the same patient determination this year. Perhaps it's the wear and tear of the Clinton years; perhaps it's the Democratic candidate. In the end, I believe the ambivalent base will come back for Gore. If it doesn't, liberals will have plenty of time out in the wilderness to reflect about it. ¤