The 2000 presidential campaign may well turn out to be the most hypocritical in modern American history. But that's okay. Hypocrisy in the cause of progressive ideals is no vice. It may even be a harbinger of reform.
The hypocritical roundup: George W. is wrapping himself in the mantle of compassion and tolerance even though he's been the nation's lord high executioner, especially of poor blacks and Hispanics. He says he's passionate about education, but Texas schools are still near the bottom in most national rankings, and schools in poor Texas towns are among the worst in all America. Most of the reforms he takes credit for began before he became governor; he deserves credit only for not stopping them.
Bush says he wants a more equitable society, yet he proposes a mammoth tax break that will overwhelmingly benefit the very Americans who have aggregated the most income and wealth during the 1990s--leaving little or no money for the majority of Americans, whose income and wealth have barely budged and who need help with health care, education, and child care. He surrounds himself with blacks and Hispanics for photo-ops, talks about opportunities for women, and has a gay Republican address the Republican convention. Yet he opposes affirmative action and stands for nothing that will help advance opportunities for minorities, women, or gays.
Al Gore, meanwhile, says he's passionate about reforming the campaign finance system, but he has been one of its worst abusers. Even putting aside the Buddhist temple, it was Gore and his boss who in 1996 found and exploited a loophole in the campaign spending laws that opened the floodgates to soft money, mostly from corporations. He says he's for the people and the other side is for the powerful, but as vice president Gore led the way on global trade agreements lacking labor protections, urged the president to sign a Republican welfare bill lacking the supports needed to move former welfare recipients out of poverty, advocated a balanced budget that sliced programs for the poor and lower-middle class but left corporate welfare intact, and was less than enthusiastic about raising the minimum wage or inducing corporations to behave more responsibly. He and his hand-picked vice presidential candidate both hail from the Democratic Leadership Council
--the corporate-supported, labor-bashing right wing of the Democratic Party.
Okay, so Bush and Gore are hypocritical. So what? If George W. wants to base his campaign on compassion, tolerance, and educational opportunities for poor kids, let him. This is the best stuff I've heard coming out of the Republican Party since before Nelson Rockefeller was hooted down. If Al Gore wants to run on getting money out of politics and reining in powerful corporations, let's cheer him on. Bush's and Gore's political consultants have obviously decided that these themes work with the all-important swing voters. Now, that's progress.
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Not many years ago, it was conventional wisdom in Republican circles that in order to win, Republicans had to play the race card. They had to get enough white voters stirred up about Democratic lenience toward black law-breakers (Willie Horton) and welfare queens to incite electoral backlashes. They also had to pander to bigots and the religious right by aiming their rhetorical guns at gays, women seeking abortions, black teenage single mothers, immigrants, and (subtly and subliminally) Jews.
Some Republicans may still harbor prejudices. (A substantial portion of the Texas delegation to the Republican convention had to be coaxed to stay in their seats when gay Republican Representative Jim Kolbe had the podium). But something quite dramatic has happened to the face that Republicans now want to show swing voters. Call it hypocrisy if you want, but it's far better than the hatefulness that came before. And it suggests that the attitudes and perhaps even the very composition of swing voters have changed.
There's been a similar transmutation on the Democratic side. In 1992 Bill Clinton ran as a self-declared "centrist" who disavowed old Democratic concerns about class and privilege. In 1996 Dick Morris counseled Bill Clinton to stay as far away from populism as was humanly possible: Don't whisper a word about corporate responsibility or the powerful. Focus instead on innocuous little things that the federal government couldn't even accomplish--like putting V-chips in television sets and requiring school uniforms--but that would warm the hearts of middle-class swing voters.
The Democratic Party has moved rightward, to be sure, and it depends more than ever on big corporations and on Wall Street for campaign money. But something altogether different has happened to the face that Democrats now want to show swing voters. Hypocritical? Absolutely. But it's better than the meaningless pablum that came before. And here, too, the change in rhetoric suggests that the attitudes and perhaps even the people who constitute the swing have also changed.
Regardless of who gains the White House next November, you can bet that the new president's deeds won't exactly match what he's now saying. That's the price of hypocrisy. But a significant portion of the voting public, having liked what they heard in this campaign, will be watching what he does. And because he'll be called to account next time around, he'll have to respond to the mandate he's created for himself. This is hypocrisy's payoff. ¤