- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2000

It's tough to write parody in Washington these days. A parody is supposed to be a literary work that exaggerates the characteristic style of an author for comic effect or ridicule. Only in Washington does it become an exemplar for presidential policy-making.

Last week, in this space, I pretended to propose a travesty of a liberal spending program. I suggested just giving $30 billion a year away to people to put in private-sector investments for retirement, since we have nothing better to do with "excess income tax revenues." This week Al Gore has announced a plan to give away $200 billion over 10 years to people to put in private sector investments for retirement, a plan made possible by the growing income-tax revenue surplus.

Of course I am not suggesting the vice president borrowed the idea from my column. He and his staff assuredly have better things to do with their scarce and fleeting moments than to read my little whiffers, effronteries and emendations on the news. No, what gives one pause is that at almost the same moment that I was sitting at my computer, chuckling over my silly little liberal spending parody, the Gore policy brain trust in dark blue suits and long, serious faces must have been presenting the virtually identical idea to the vice president of the United States of America. And he must have been nodding, seriously and slowly, his assent.

This Gore proposal does have, however, the redeeming value of casting a useful light on the state of the Bush/Gore contest. According to Reuters news service, the Bush camp immediately attacked the Gore proposal as a further example of Mr. Gore's flip-flopping, unsteady, focus group-driven mentality.

The Bush camp points out that only weeks ago, Mr. Gore was condemning Mr. Bush's Social Security proposal for permitting limited investment in the stock market. In this proposal Al Gore is reversing himself and coming out for the same thing, if funded differently. Mr. Bush and his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, emphasized Mr. Gore's "change of positions," reliance on "polls and focus groups" and unsteadiness. Driving home the key message point that Mr. Gore is as steady and reliable as a grasshopper in heat Mr. Fleischer points out, "This is the third position [Mr. Gore] has taken in the past six months on the soundness of having an investment in the market."

Apparently, being a compassionate conservative precludes calling the other fellow a liberal, so Team Bush doesn't accuse Mr. Gore of the "L" word. Let me point out, then, that the difference between Mr. Bush's investment proposal and Mr. Gore's is that Mr. Bush is fiscally responsible by relying on funded Social Security payroll tax revenues, while Mr. Gore follows the liberal shibboleth that grabbing general revenues is "free money."

Meanwhile the vice president's policy spokeswoman, Sarah Bianchi, gamely responded: "This is not Social Security … It is called Retirement Savings Plus … This is in addition to Social Security." She completed her defense of Mr. Gore's copycat Social Security revision proposal with the howler: "The vice president's long standing [sic] position is that Social Security is a benefit that should be secure …" Ms. Bianchi's ability to deny flatly the obvious suggests a future career in Hollywood as a publicist specializing in defending sequels as "unique and seminal film events."

There is not a single piece of this story that works for Mr. Gore's candidacy. First of all, the fact that a Democratic Party presidential candidate has to play catch-up on the issue of Social Security should (and does) send chills down the backs of Democratic Party professionals.

Second, by changing his position on Social Security, misstating what he is doing and then denying the foregoing obvious points, Mr. Gore has opened himself up to a highly visible personal critique of all the weakest aspects of his image: a poll-driven politician who doesn't know his own mind and will do and say anything to get elected. A solid majority of the public either has, or is about to, come to the conclusion that Mr. Gore is weak, indecisive and lacks leadership ability. For the Gore team to bring those very weaknesses to the Social Security issue is a blunder of the first water. Social Security was to be a major issue for Mr. Gore. From now until the election, he cannot engage that issue without opening the door to a Bush reminder of those Gore personality weaknesses.

While Mr. Bush has not yet convinced a majority of the public that he is ready to be president (Ronald Reagan didn't accomplish that for himself until October of 1980), he is on the brink of convincing the public that they would prefer not to give the job to Mr. Gore. This puts the vice president in the awkward position of having to return to his harshly negative campaign against Mr. Bush a tactic by which both the press and the public are primed to be repelled.

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