More Liberal Than You Thought

Bill Bradley wants to require the registration of all handguns. Al Gore says that all handgun owners should be required to obtain a license. Bradley wants to prohibit police departments from using "racial profiling." So does Gore. Gore wants to raise the minimum wage. So does Bradley. Both men talk about making it easier for labor unions to organize. Bradley says day care should be more widely available; Gore has pledged to fund universal access to preschool. Gore wants to expand the children's health insurance program to cover more children and as many as seven million work ing parents now without health insurance. Bradley's first detailed proposal was for near-universal coverage.

Both campaigns strenuously deny it, but something that looks very much like a bidding war for the hearts of hard-core Democratic activists is breaking out as Gore and Bradley engage in an unexpectedly tight battle for the party's presidential nomination. Given that both men gravitated toward the center during their careers in Congress, some Demo crats have a hard time imagining these two spiraling each other toward the left. "For one basically moderate individual to push another moderate individual to be more progressive is a leap I find somewhat difficult," says Amy Isaacs, national director of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Yet, within limits, that's exactly what appears to be happening.

Bradley is talking about racial reconciliation, campaign finance reform, his opposition to the 1996 welfare bill, adding gays as a protected group under the 1964 civil rights act, and new offensives to reduce childhood poverty and expand access to health care. Gore is pursuing a more nuanced balance. He's still pushing plenty of centrist "New Democrat" ideas difficult for the left to swallow. But in a series of largely overlooked speeches since last spring, the vice president has proposed a more assertive role for the federal government- in areas from education to health care- than President Clinton has risked offering at any point since the Republican congressional take-over in 1994.

Gore's wish list reflects his own substantive analysis of how to build on the policy successes- and confront the failures- that he and Clinton have experienced over the past seven years. But embedded in his agenda is an intriguing political dynamic. The usual rule in presidential politics- laid down by no less an authority than Richard M. Nixon- is that candidates play to their party's base in the primary and lean back to the center in the general election. That would suggest Gore or even Bradley might spend much of this fall talking about more government initiatives, and much of next fall trying to forget what he said this fall. In this election, though, the incentives look very different. With Republican front-runner George W. Bush trying to claim the center, the need to create contrasts may impel the Democratic nominee to emphasize activist government in the general election as well as the primaries. For Bradley or Gore, the challenge will be gauging how far to go without opening the door to Republican counterattacks about big government that Clinton has largely nailed shut since embracing a balanced budget himself in 1995.

A Liberal Center

In this early maneuvering, there's no sign of Gore abandoning the basic framework of Clinton's New Democrat synthesis. The vice president has already committed himself to a considerable list of centrist priorities, particularly on fiscal and cultural issues. He's pledged to keep the federal budget in balance every year he's president. Unequivocally he insists he will maintain the work requirements and time limits on aid included in the 1996 welfare bill. He wants to make it easier for religiously based charities to deliver government services, like job training and drug counseling. He wants states to require teachers to undergo peer reviews to maintain their teaching licenses. He's promised to push for a victims' bill of rights, and he wants Washington to help cities hire another 50,000 new police officers. None of that sends hearts beating much faster at the ADA.

But Clintonism has always involved balancing such centrist ideas with more traditionally Democratic notions of activist government. And Gore is confronting electoral pressures greater than Clinton ever faced to pump up the activist side of his equation. The most immediate source of pressure is the surprisingly robust primary challenge from Bradley, the former New Jersey senator. Clinton never really had to defend his agenda against a serious primary challenge from the left: Mario M. Cuomo didn't run against him in 1992 (leaving only Tom Harkin and later Jerry Brown to feebly carry the flag), and Jesse Jackson didn't challenge him in 1996. That left Clinton largely free to emphasize the centrist elements of his blend. Bradley, though, is running at Gore primarily from the left- accusing the Clinton administration of lacking "big ideas" and insisting that prosperity's benefits must be spread more widely. Bradley is putting his name on a lengthening list of liberal social and economic priorities. He wants to let gays serve openly in the military, he's indicated support for allowing unions to organize through card checks, he's criticized the work requirements and time limits in the 1996 welfare reform proposal, and he's offered a sweeping campaign finance reform proposal. In late September, he proposed to spend $65 billion a year from the surplus to subsidize health insurance for all uncovered children and millions of uninsured adults. More proposals on bolstering working families and reducing child poverty are due soon.

Ironically, Bradley's message doesn't seem to be resonating yet nearly as much as his loping, antipolitics (and implied anti-Clinton) persona; in many surveys, Bradley is running better among independents and moderate-to-conservative Democrats (many of them disillusioned with Clinton) than he is with liberals. But Bradley's critique has forced Gore to take notice. Moreover, if Pat Buchanan runs as an eco nomic nationalist, that adds pressure on Gore (and Bradley) not to take for granted downscale voters who are sometime Democrats.

From top to bottom, Gore advisers insist they are devising their agenda with an eye toward the general election and that they feel no pressure to match Bradley's ideas. Yet privately some will acknowledge that even if they do not feel compelled to trump every specific idea Bradley offers (a list, in any case, he didn't even begin to fill out until early fall), Gore has felt pressure to rebut the broader critique from Bradley and others that his would be a status quo campaign lacking in new ideas or grand ambitions. That pressure has been a subtle but steady goad encouraging Gore to increase the scale of his proposals in areas such as expanding access to health care or reforming education.

What's unusual is that Bush is pushing Gore in the same direction. While making some concessions of his own toward his party base (promising to sign the GOP tax cut, for instance, or pushing to partially privatize Social Security), Bush is following the Clinton model of emphasizing the center even in the primary. Ignoring steady potshots from the right, he's grounded his campaign in the slogans of "com passionate conservatism" and "prosperity with a purpose." He's downplayed social issues like abortion and affirmative action. His first major speech offered $8 billion in new federal spending to assist private charities in making greater efforts to help the poor; his second focused on reforming Head Start and Title I, the two principal federal education initiatives aimed at the poor. He's even signed onto some modest gun control initiatives, like raising the age for handgun ownership.

In all these ways, Bush is signaling that if he wins the nomination, he could compete more effectively for centrist swing voters than his father did in 1992 or Bob Dole did in 1996. For both Bradley and Gore, one of the overriding necessities if they face Bush next fall will be to undermine that appeal by dislodging Bush from the center. One way they'll try to do that is by tying him to the Republican leadership in Congress; another will be by highlighting his Texas record on such issues as guns and pollution, where he took positions that didn't look out of the mainstream in the state but might nationally.

But Gore strategists believe the key to challenging Bush's claim to the center is articulating an activist federal agenda he can't match. "Our challenge becomes not to let him get away with a couple of symbolic separations and a little bit of window-dressing policy that belies the fact that he does not intend to take any real action," insists one senior Gore adviser. Many around Gore en vision a general election in which the vice president (should he get that far) tries to under mine Bush's positioning with arguments like this: "My opponent may say he's compassionate, but he won't raise the minimum wage or help cities rebuild crumbling schools or help working families get the health care they need." The only way Gore can draw those contrasts is by stockpiling initiatives of his own that Bush can't endorse. In that way, the pressure to outflank Bush pushes Gore in the same direction as does the pressure to preempt Bradley. The political demands in both instances argue for a Gore agenda that is ambitious, specific, and focused on the areas that his rivals are emphasizing- the same areas of highest priority to core Democrats: education, health care, and poverty.

"Both will require Gore to become more activist," says one senior Clinton administration official close to Gore. "The liberal challenge in the primary and the Republican in the general both require the same movement- both will require Gore to make his activist, progressive case. Both arrows point in the same direction."

Clinton and Beyond

Gore is building on Clinton's own recent shift in direction. In 1992 candidate Clinton's New Democrat promises to "end welfare as we know it," shrink the federal work force, and halve the federal deficit were balanced by activist pledges to increase public investment, reform education, and ensure universal health care. After those aims disastrously collided during his chaotic first two years- fueling the Republican landslide in 1994- Clinton was forced to retrench. After embracing the balanced budget in 1995, he ran for re-election on a minimalist agenda centered on defending existing programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Since then, though, as the political and fiscal climates have improved, Clinton has steadily raised his sights, albeit with limited legislative success. In 1997 he proposed voluntary national education tests (which Republicans blocked) and the children's health insurance program (which he won in the balanced-budget deal). During the next year came proposals to raise the minimum wage, establish a patients' bill of rights, hire 100,000 teachers, subsidize child care, and allow the near-elderly to buy into Medicare. This year, Clinton resubmitted all those ideas (most of which Republicans had shelved in 1998) and added a call for covering prescription drugs under Medicare, hiring 50,000 new police officers, and offering "new market" incentives for invest ments in depressed urban and rural communities. That might not add up to the Great Society, but it's a formidable distance from where Clinton stood only three years ago.

Now on almost every front, Gore has proposed to push further. Endorsing virtually all of those Clinton proposals as a base line, he's released a swarm of his own new ideas- at least two dozen in all. In education he's called for the federal government to fund universal access to preschool, class- size reduction all the way through 12th grade (Clinton's 100,000-teacher plan would only reach through third grade), expanded summer-school and after-school programs, a teachers' corps that would help young people pay for college in return for teaching in distressed school districts, and a 401(j) program- modeled on the popular pension plan- that workers could use to save for their children's education and training or for their own.

BUDGET BUSTERS

Despite the surprising activism of both Gore and Bradley, under current budget rules and politics, there is no room for launching major government initiatives that require significant spending. Three factors suppress spending. One is the unwillingness of any political party or faction to consider higher taxes even on the newly megarich- the fear of the tax-and-spend label present since the Reagan era.

A second factor is the bipartisan agreement to not spend the part of the overall surplus that corresponds to the annual increment in the Social Security trust-fund surplus. Rather, trust-fund surpluses are used to pay down the general government debt, presumably to ease the burden of the baby boomers' retirement. This lock-box policy is not really about saving Social Security: it's the result of political posturing to be the savior of Social Security, the failure to address the long-term growth of health care costs (a real threat to public, household, and employer budgets), and a continuing belief that increasing saving is the path to growth.

But what about the non- Social Security budget surplus projected to be $997 billion over the next 10 years? This is where the third factor, the 1997 budget agreement, kicks in. To reduce the deficit, both parties agreed to put strict limits (called "caps") on domestic discretionary spending (of which defense spending comprises nearly half). These caps have just now started to bite. They will be observed, budget forecasters assume, when surpluses are estimated. To observe the caps requires nondefense domestic spending cuts in 2009 of 13 percent (the Clinton plan) or 29 percent (if we add tax cuts as the GOP proposes). So the flip side of the non- Social Security surplus is spending cuts that are neither politically feasible nor desirable.

The difficulty in making these cuts is proven by the inability of the Republican Congress to do so, as reflected in their farcical gimmickry: counting constitutionally mandated census expenses as "emergency" spending, moving outlays a year ahead or behind, even adding a "13th month" to the fiscal year. The very latest move, stretching out the Earned Income Tax Credit payments to the working poor over a longer time period, has been soundly, and rightly, condemned by George W. Bush as "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor." More antics will surely follow because even maintaining current spending levels will not allow the expansion of programs corresponding to a larger economy and a greater population.

This is the box that Democrats, notably Gore and Bradley, need to break out of if they are to make new initiatives. There's certainly a backlog of unmet needs to be addressed after two decades of fiscal austerity. In 1998 economist Dean Baker estimated the shortfall in public investment needs (school and highway infrastructure, education and training, research and development) to be $66 to $95 billion. Add Bradley's health plan of $65 billion (or any effort to fund Medicare, to provide prescription drug coverage in Medicare, or extend coverage to all kids, let alone everyone), and we're talking about real money. Plus there's needed social spending on housing, nutrition, crime prevention, and other areas.

Something, or several things, will have to give. We can't limit revenues, lock up the Social Security surplus, increase defense spending, maintain the budget caps, and pretend we're going to launch much needed new initiatives. Will either Gore or Bradley have the courage to admit that we are in a new fiscal era and put tax increases or mild public borrowing back on the agenda? If not, we're condemned to a politics of tokenism.

-Lawrence Mishel

He wants to raise the minimum wage, fund a third round of empowerment zones for midsize cities, double federal research spending on information technology and cancer research, provide tax credits for firms that train workers for high-tech jobs, and provide states with grants to create "opportunity academies" for disadvantaged high school graduates who need more help before attend ing college. Gore wants to increase the standard deduction for joint filers (as a way of addressing the marriage penalty) and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for married couples. In early September, he waded back into the health care swamp where Clinton's presidency nearly ran aground: Gore issued his proposal to expand the children's health program to cover more children and, even more importantly, as many as seven million of their parents in working-poor families. Also in the mix were 25-percent refundable tax credits to encourage small businesses to cover their workers and to help uninsured indi viduals purchase their own insurance. That wouldn't add up to universal health care, but- atop the existing children's insurance program- Gore aides estimated it could provide coverage to as many as 11- 15 million of the 43 million uninsured.

Caps Off?

To the frustration of Gore's staff, his activism has drawn relatively little attention, even among liberal groups ostensibly most focused on the race. "I think in this early game most people who are going to be called upon to vote in the Democratic primaries and in the general election are not parsing the proposals that carefully," says Roger Hickey, co- director of the Campaign for America's Future, the new umbrella liberal group. Very few criticize Gore's specific ideas; as with Clinton, the debate on the left is whether they go far enough.

Envelope-pushers like Ruy Teixeira, a sharp-eyed analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, complain that Gore's proposals still accept the basic framework of fiscal austerity that Clinton has pursued. "I certainly think that he is trying to spin out a variety of specific ideas- but on the other hand I'm not sure they amount to much on the scaleometer," he says. "I don't see it as being a big break from the kind of small-bore Clinton style of activism." The trickiest question here is cost. Even with all good intentions, he asks, how can Gore pay for his ideas within the current straightjacket of domestic spending caps and balanced budgets? Publicly Gore hasn't provided much of an answer, but the components of one emerge from conversation with his aides. The baseline assumption of Gore's advisers is that Congress and Clinton will lift the spending caps before the next president takes office.

"Whether or not it fits into the caps is almost a moot point," says the senior Gore adviser. After that, Gore's camp is looking to pay for their program- at least in the sense of making it add up on paper- largely by dipping into the $540 billion Clinton wants to set aside through 2014 for subsidized retirement savings accounts, the so-called Universal Savings Accounts. There are still other problems with the math- notably that the surplus estimates on which all these calculations are based assume a continued cap on domestic spending that would necessitate large cuts in the years ahead. But Gore's camp, like virtually everyone else in Washington, assumes that the economy will continue to throw off more revenue than is now forecast, easing that squeeze.

In effect Gore would stretch but not shatter the current consensus on federal spending. Some liberals, at least, consider Gore's approach a sensible balance between aspiration and plausibility. Ronald Pollack, vice president and executive director of the health care advocacy group Families USA, was on the front lines of the battle over Clinton's 1994 plan for universal health care. He gives Gore high marks for his health care proposal, even though it falls considerably short of Clinton's.

"What Gore did was something that was truly practical and is very, very substantial: this was not a token thing," Pollack says. "Obviously, for organizations like ours . . . it's our number one, two, and three priority to get to universal coverage. And we'd like to do it next week. But having gone through these fights now for many, many iterations and over many years, I have a somewhat greater appreciation for doing something significant that is achievable rather than beating my breast in support of the whole enchilada and getting nothing."

Still, Gore has plenty of problems with the activist left. Some believe the party needs a fresh face untainted by the Clinton scandals. Others consider Gore's campaign excessively buttoned up and corporate. (He has no less than six pollsters on staff, leading one comic to recently declare that it's not known who tells Gore what to think on the seventh day.) "There is very little sense with Gore that it's a campaign that is inviting grass-roots people in," says Hickey.

Though his campaign apparatus is more informal, Bradley isn't necessarily a much more congenial fit. While he is emphasizing liberal themes now, based on his congressional record, "Most people don't see Bradley as their champion on the left," notes Hickey. Pollack, for one, complains that for all his current talk about universal coverage, Bradley was AWOL during the Senate fight on Clinton's plan in 1994. ("Where the hell was he in '93 and '94? Bradley just was not around," he says.)

And even Teixeira, while applauding Bradley's critique of Clintonism, worries that the former senator's aggressive social liberalism on issues like welfare reform "could kill Bradley [in a general election]. If there is too much emphasis on too many relics of the old liberal left . . . he is going to get hammered." In the end, though Bradley is making inroads among local activists, most elected officials and national institutions identified with the left- like the AFL-CIO- are likely to eventually side with Gore.

At times this debate among Democrats about whether Gore or Bradley would go far enough in pur suing new federal programs can seem as oxygen-deprived as an argument between Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer over who is most committed to an immediate ban on abortion. In practice there are real obstacles to the ability of either Democrat to deliver on an activist agenda, at least in the near term, should he be nominated and elected. For one thing, the 1997 budget deal still constrains public outlay. For another, it is all but impossible for the Democrats to take back the Senate in 2000, and even a Democratic House would likely be closely divided between the parties, with dozens of conservative Blue Dogs and New Democrats limiting activism within the Democratic caucus. Public attitudes are also contradictory and ambivalent on the subject of activist government.

Polls show that voters, simultaneously, are supportive of more public outlay for such favored purposes as education and health but still generally skeptical of Washington's ability to do what's right most of the time. In the abstract, voters also prefer smaller to larger government. Public opinion is capable of breaking either way on the issue of government activism, depend ing on which side effectively frames the debate.

Yet the Democratic contenders are pressured to challenge that ambivalence, both by their own competition and by Bush's turn away from the antigovernment rhetoric that's characterized congressional Repub licans. There's undoubtedly a risk in offering more Washington activism than the voters will accept. But to create contrasts with a Republican nominee seeking the center, Gore or Bradley will have to skate much closer to that edge than Clinton has been willing to do for years.



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