Al Gore's problem is that he's acting as if he's desperate to be president, but sounding as if he doesn't want to do anything new once elected. Talk about a mixed message. Voters could understand why someone would be driven to get into the Oval Office if he were intent on making a lot of changes. But Gore's message has been that we should stay the course. Keep cutting the deficit. Don't tinker with Social Security. Protect Medicare. Don't take any risks.
Yes, the economy is still growing like gangbusters, and unemployment is as low as we've seen it in 30 years. But Gore can't expect America to vote for him simply because he had an office in the West Wing of the White House during these buoyant years. If the polls are to be believed, the public only partially credits Bill Clinton for the expansion anyway. Alan Greenspan wins some of the applause. And many people know in their bones that the largest driving force has been technology. It's the Internet, stupid--along with computers, satellites, fiber-optic cables, and all that.
It must be frustrating for Gore, because everyone under 40 seems to be taking this good economy for granted. The expansion that began in 1991 represents a sizable chunk of the working lives of most twenty- and thirty-somethings. People over 40, meanwhile, aren't so sure the new economy is such a great deal. Middle-aged men in particular are finding themselves over the e-hill. Large, old-economy companies are laying them off in droves. Shouldn't the vice president, as the presumptive Democratic nominee, have some big ideas on what to do about this?
George W. Bush, meanwhile, does have some "new ideas"--but they're terrible. They would further split the nation into the have-mores and the have-lesses. This great divide would be the direct effect of a huge tax break whose benefits would go almost entirely to people who became much richer in the 1990s; of school vouchers that would remove good students with ambitious parents from the public schools; of privatized Social Security accounts that would siphon off the savings of the wealthiest and the youngest; and of privatized medical savings accounts that would give protection to the wealthy and the healthy while leaving the poor and the sick without adequate insurance coverage.
Gore is attacking Bush's ideas for being "too risky," for jeopardizing what America already has. But Americans never pay attention to what they have. They always want to move forward to something better. Presidential contests are won or lost over whose definition of "better" is more compelling. Right now, Bush's vision wins by default simply because it dares to be new and different. Gore is losing ground because he's not talking about what could be. He's riding on what is.
Gore's charge of "too risky" worked against Bill Bradley because Bradley wouldn't fight for his ideas. He mumbled, grumbled, and then crumbled. Americans don't mind taking risks, but they want someone with enough punch and pizzazz to pull it off. Bush isn't rolling over in response to Gore's attacks. He's fighting back, standing up for his cockeyed ideas. "Here's why parents of failing schools should have a choice of where to send their kids," he says. "We've got to reform Social Security and bring it into the twenty-first century," he claims. What does Gore come back with? "Too risky." Gore is fighting to preserve the status quo. Who wants to go to battle on these grounds?
But now imagine that Bush's vision of protecting the winners were matched up against a new and inclusive vision. Consider, say, a bold and original voucher plan, in which everyone were eligible for school vouchers but in varying amounts: Rich kids would get $2,000 vouchers while poor inner-city kids would get giant vouchers of $12,000 a year, which they could cash in at any public or charter school. The poor kids' vouchers would be so big, and the rich kids' so modest, that if the suburban schools were to survive they would have to compete like mad to attract the poor kids. The poor kids' vouchers in this plan would be so big, in fact, that the inner-city schools would start off at an extraordinary advantage--enabling them to cut down classroom size and attract gifted teachers from all over. But if the city schools didn't make the most of their windfall, the poor kids would go elsewhere, taking their giant vouchers with them.
Seen in contrast to an alternative vision like this, Bush's "new" voucher idea appears clearly for what it is: a way to cut up the old educational pie so that more goes to the people who already have the biggest slice. The genuinely new idea of a "reverse voucher," on the other hand, offers up an entirely different kind of pie that improves everyone's chances.
Maybe you don't like my reverse-voucher idea. Fine, let's try something else. There are a lot of genuinely new and good ideas out there for giving poor kids better schools, or expanding health care (how about a "health care minimum wage" of $2 an hour paid by your employer into the plan of your choice?), or doing any number of things we need to do as a nation. How about an "asset grubstake" of $40,000, given to each American at birth, to be invested and then put toward col-lege or a business start-up, financed by a national wealth tax? We can afford to experiment. We're at a rare historic moment when we can think big. This is no time to rest on our laurels, stand pat, and claim that almost everything is "too risky."
America wants to move forward. If the Democratic candidate for president represents little more than the status quo, he won't be president. And the rest of us will end up going backward. ¤