- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

The politics of the age of surplus is not yet knowable, as it is only a few months old. Neither the experienced political consultant, nor the political reporter who has covered presidential elections since Eisenhower can rely on his vast experience to judge the likely endgame of surplus politics. Nor can polling be relied on. The art of polling is much more reliable when assessing a question and response that has been tested for years. When new issues and facts arise, there are no benchmark public responses against which to judge the current answers.
In fact, virtually no one, either in the public or the political class, has had time to seriously think about an age of surplus. Thus there is no settled public opinion on the topic available for measuring.
Polling that purports to measure whether the public prefers to use the surplus to pay down the debt, cut taxes or spend on various new or continuing projects is inherently unreliable. It is attempting to measure a cloud that will continue to take new shapes based on rapidly shifting winds.
But the Bush and Gore campaigns do not have the luxury of waiting for public opinion to crystallize, a process that could take years. As Henry Kissinger wrote about a statesman (as compared to a mere academic analyst): "[He] must act on assessments that cannot be proved at the time that he is making them; he will be judged by history on the basis of how wisely he managed the inevitable change."
So much of modern American politics has been systematized, routinized, professionalized. But when it comes to the politics of surplus, we are all amateurs. What fun. Al Gore, George Bush and their advisers are all trying to make political history by the seats of their pants. And we nattering nabobs are also making up our analysis as we go along.
A few weeks ago, in this space, I conjectured based on early congressional Republican spending proposals that in an age of surplus where, apparently, fiscal restraint is no longer an issue, conservatives would feel inclined (against their better ideological judgment) to support more new spending programs. This week, the question is, what are the presidential campaign calculations of the politics of surplus?
Vice President Gore has the more complex set of factors to assess, and he has been more active, early, than has Gov. Bush in adjusting to the politics of surplus. Mr. Bush has been content to let his spokesmen remind reporters that his tax cut is even more easily fundable with the rise in the projected surplus. But, as the estimated surplus has shot up, Mr. Gore has been fast to use it up. He has doubled his tax cut proposal. He has offered a Social Security spending increase of scores of billions per year. The Clinton-Gore administration has doubled its prescription drug subsidy. Mr. Gore has personally proposed vast new energy cost subsidies.

So much of modern American politics has been systematized, routinized, professionalized. But when it comes to the politics of surplus, we are all amateurs. What fun. Al Gore, George Bush and their advisers are all trying to make political history by the seats of their pants.

The vice president has sent out his spokesmen to tell reporters that he sees spending the surplus as a major part of his latest campaign transformation. Every time Mr. Gore and his wizard campaign advisers give up on their latest image of him, the transformation of the vice president to his next iteration is chronicled in appalling detail in long Washington Post and New York Times stories. Gore spokesmen are invariably quoted painfully describing the manipulative calculations that went into the creation of "The New Gore."
And therein lies the danger to Mr. Gore from his bold response to the emerging age of surplus. His response may contradict the central premise of the Gore candidacy, which is: Al Gore helped create the current peace and prosperity, and he, far better than Mr. Bush, knows how to keep it going. This is a powerful status quo argument and virtually the only reason that veteran political analysts still think Mr. Gore has a good chance to be elected president.
Similar assurances were successfully given in 1835 by Austrian Chancellor Prince Clemens von Metternich, upon the ascension to the Hapsburg throne of the physical and mental defective, His Royal, Apostolic and Imperial Majesty Ferdinand I. The crafty old Metternich assured a nervous court aristocracy (known as the state conference) that: "No innovation in policy or principle will take place during the new reign." Thus assured, the imperial capital settled in for the new reign (of course, it ended 13 years later in revolution and abdication).
So, does Mr. Gore's cataract of new spending and policy proposals in response to the growing surplus estimates constitute a fundamental contradiction of his central status quo campaign theme? And, do Mr. Gore's self-consciously described image changes also contradict the message of continuity that should be at the heart of a successful status quo campaign?
Or has Mr. Gore decided that the opportunity to promise vast sums to myriad interests around the country outweighs the traditional status quo argument made by incumbents in good times? If Mr. Gore has so decided, we may be witness to the most bizarre campaign in modern memory: The challenger claiming steady continuity of the good times, while the incumbent argues for radical policy changes in a changing world.

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