Does anybody in America know what this year’s presidential race is about? Does it have a topic? A theme? A unifying controversy? A challenge? A piquant irony? A rousing inspiration?
If so, could that person kindly inform Al Gore and/or George W. Bush?
Tuesday’s debate between the two looked like something one might see at Walt Disney World a couple of cleverly engineered robots moving stiffly from side to side, in concert with audio tapes. Mr. Gore’s makeup person evidently wanted to make the Prince of Tennessee look like Young Reagan, but instead made him look like the latest arrival at Eternal Acres. Mr. Bush occasionally fell silent as he tried to recall what answer he and the guys had concocted in their rehearsal sessions or, in the case of a question about the abortion pill, how to answer a query for which he had not been programmed.
It was as if coaches had instructed the men to look stentorian or presidential or some such thing, thus prompting them to strike poses that seemed faintly silly and wholly unnatural.
One of Mr. Bush’s top advisers conceded the day after the debate that “we missed some opportunities” which is a rather genteel way of saying Mr. Bush rejected a series of free political gifts from Mr. Gore, ranging from the Democrat’s latest reinvention of his own life to a series of policy gaffes that a reasonably well-briefed candidate would be able to knock into the next solar system.
Team Gore has the slightly more delicate task of urging its leader not to act like a jerk and a boor, especially when his opponent has the floor. Mr. Gore’s groans and sighs made one wonder what the poor fellow had eaten for dinner, whether he was suffering from what our Founders in the Federalist Papers called the “fermentation of the bowels.”
And yet, despite it all, the debate did produce a compelling theme, which I herewith pass on to the respective campaigns: This is an election about big government.
As far as I can tell, there is nothing Mr. Gore would not have the government do save, perhaps, prosecuting wayward presidents or discouraging avaricious trial lawyers. He presses his case vigorously, treating the balanced budget as the holiest of grails and using surpluses as the justification for an unprecedented burst of new spending.
He uses the abstraction of the surplus as the foundation for concrete promises smaller classes, more teachers, smarter students, free prescriptions, inexpensive health care, a cleaner environment, new technologies for producing energies, tax cuts for the “right” people, bigger national forests, a snappier armed services, fresher crops, happier lab rats, computers piling up in homes and schools like kernels in a wavy golden field of wheat. And anything else you might want.
Mr. Bush doesn’t exactly assail the notion of big government, but he does suggest putting Leviathan on a diet. He proposes a bitty tax cut and recommends letting workers invest money in the stock market rather than a reliably unrewarding Social Security Trust Fund. He would put public schools on notice: If for three consecutive years they fail to educate students, parents (especially in low-income homes) would get the option of taking their share of federal education money and spending it on schools of their choosing. He favors expanding health-care spending for people who cannot afford medical treatment prompting Mr. Gore to complain Mr. Bush was proposing to help “only” the poor.
Mr. Gore was right: Mr. Bush had outlined a program to limit federal benefices to the people who might need it. This is in contrast to Mr. Gore’s college-tuition program, which does not offer a dime to people who don’t make enough money to pay federal taxes, and to his health-care blueprint, which urges people not to die for eight years the time required for GoreCare to take full effect.
This exposes another interesting contrast: Mr. Gore wants to generalize federal control over most government activities thus putting everybody in national programs for health care and the like while restricting the number and types of people who get tax cuts or who can escape Washington’s regulatory reach. It is just the opposite with Mr. Bush: He wants everyone to get tax relief but suggests restricting federal intervention to specified hard cases.
If the two men can make their cases competently, we’ll get something we all need: a clarifying election about big ideas. That’s a big “if,” but it’s the one upon which this year’s election hinges.
Tony Snow is a nationally syndicated columnist.Tony Snow is a nationally syndicated columnist.Tony Snow is a nationally syndicated columnist.Tony Snow is a nationally syndicated columnist.Tony Snow is a nationally syndicated columnist.