Listen to Gore's acceptance speech, and you'll understand his problem. I'll eliminate the debt, and Bush's tax cut will bankrupt America! (Yawn.) He's in favor of guns, and I'm against them! (Eyes glaze.) I'll keep the prosperity rolling, and he won't! (Nod off.) Texas is a cesspool and educational backwater! (Doze.) He's in the pockets of big oil, big pharmaceuticals, and big insurance, and I'm not! (Snooze.) He doesn't know anything about foreign policy, and I do! (Snore.) He'll put right-to-life justices on the Supreme Court, and I won't! (Zzzzzz.)
America's asleep, but not because it's summertime and the living is easy. For most Americans, making a living is still a headache. The big snooze is because they don't believe the choice between Gore and Bush matters very much--and they're partly right.
Regardless of who sits in the Oval next year, Republicans and Democrats are rapidly converging on how to allocate the surplus: roughly a third for tax cuts (some targeted, some across the board), a third for additional spending (defense and domestic), and a third to pay down the federal debt in advance of the boomers' costly retirements. Bush may tilt slightly in one direction and Gore in another, but the big differences are evaporating. Meanwhile, Alan Greenspan is in charge of the economy, stupid, and both candidates like it that way.
Gore's recent tirades against big companies notwithstanding, everyone knows he's no corporate-bashing populist. Besides, most Americans think that both candidates are up to their eyeballs in corporate cash and that neither will really champion campaign finance reform.
Bush and Gore agree on foreign policy, and their incipient teams are equally experienced. Both support a national missile defense system. In any event, with the end of the Evil Empire, the only global issue on Americans' minds is trade--of which both candidates want more.
Both support the death penalty. Neither advocates national health insurance. Both say they care a lot about education. Both want to downsize the federal government.
Yes, the next appointments to the Supreme Court will be especially important because the balance of power between moderate and conservative justices is now so close. Gore should emphasize this more than he has to date. Yet as a practical matter, the very closeness of the balance means that unless the next president backs jurists who are in the respectable mainstream, he'll face bitter and divisive confirmation fights costing him a boatload of political capital.
So what's the big difference? This: Bush is hell-bent on giving wealthier, healthier, and better-educated Americans a lot more ways to withdraw their support from anyone who's poorer, sicker, and less educated. He wants "individual retirement accounts" to replace Social Security, individual medical accounts to replace Medicare, and school vouchers to replace public school funding. Gore doesn't.
But unless Gore finds ways to convince voters that he will champion policies that move beyond mere rhetoric, the voters will keep slumbering right through November. What's really at issue is the sorting of America.
These will be the biggest political battles of the next four years--and they'll be tough for Democrats to win because such sorting is always to the advantage of the more advantaged. It's cheaper for you to pay for a service that excludes people who'd use up more of it than you would. A voucher to a private school that expels troublemakers, for example, is a better deal for a parent of a well-behaved student than paying taxes for a public school whose teachers have to spend their time on the troublemakers. By the same token, you'd do better with a retirement nest egg you didn't have to split with anyone disabled, widowed, or simply not as smart as you about socking money into good investments. And you'll get a better deal on insurance that covers only people as healthy and low-risk as you, and no one sicker or riskier.
The market is already doing a frighteningly good job linking people to private services that exclude anyone more needy than they. Private retirement funds, private health insurers and HMOs, private schools, private residential communities, and private health clubs are already "cherry-picking" like mad, finding the most "desirable" customers who will use up the fewest resources. The result: less political support for public institutions. If we voucherize and privatize the rest of what's public, the sorting will go into high gear.
Taken to its logical end, America will become rigidly stratified. Every time the next group of cherries is picked, those left behind in public institutions will end up paying more and getting less. So naturally the most "desirable" among them want out as well (hence, for example, the popularity of school vouchers among poor parents who are ambitious for their children).
There's only one way to reverse the sorting mechanism, and Gore should be saying it loud and clear: We have to rededicate ourselves to strong public institutions that are indubitably public because they work well for everyone. Of course this means more money and higher performance standards. But it also requires a renewed public spiritedness--a we're-all-in-this-together patriotism that says it's good for Americans to transcend class, race, education, health, and fortune, and to participate together.
Compassionate conservatives see government as an intrusive means of forcing people to share with the needier, something that ought to be left to private charity. Patriotic progressives see public institutions as a means of maintaining a nation.
Gore, take note: This is a real difference worth fighting for. ¤