Al Gore is fighting for the status quo. He won't get elected that way, says Clinton's former labour secretaryby Robert Reich / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
As i write, Al Gore is trailing George W Bush in the polls by 5 to 10 points. This is not fatal. The election is still four months away. Yet Gore’s failure to attract more support is remarkable, given his strong showing in the Democratic primaries and the strength of the US economy. What’s going on?
Gore’s problem, in a nutshell, is that he is acting as if he is desperate to be president, but sounding as if there is nothing new he wants to do once he is elected. The two messages are out of sync. Voters could understand why someone might be driven to get into the Oval Office if he was 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 American economy is still growing like gangbusters, and unemployment is as low as it has been 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 polls are to be believed, the public only partially credits Bill Clinton for the expansion, anyway. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, wins some of the applause. And many people know in their bones that the main driving force has been technology: the internet, computers, satellites, fibre-optic cables and the rest.
The trouble for Gore is that every American under 40 is taking this good economic news for granted. The expansion which began in 1991 represents a sizeable chunk of the working lives of most twenty-and thirty-somethings. Anyone over 40, meanwhile, isn’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.
George W Bush’s “new ideas” are terrible, but not because they are “too risky,” as Gore likes to say. They are terrible because they would further split the nation into the have-mores and the have-lesses. That is exactly what we will get from a huge tax break whose benefits would go mainly to people who became much richer in the 1990s; and from school vouchers which will cream off the good students with ambitious parents; and from privatised social security accounts which will siphon off the savings of the wealthier and younger; and from privatised medical savings accounts which will siphon off the healthier.
Gore is attacking Bush for risking 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 about whose definition of “better” is the more compelling. Right now, Bush’s vision wins by default, simply because it dares to be different. Gore is losing ground because he is not talking about what could be. He is riding on what is.
Gore’s “too risky” attack worked on Bill Bradley, his opponent in the Democratic primary election, because Bradley wouldn’t fight for his ideas. Americans don’t mind taking risks, but they want someone with enough punch to pull it off. George W isn’t rolling over in response to Gore’s attacks. He is 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 21st century,” he claims. What does Al fight back with? “Too risky.” Al is fighting to preserve the status quo. Who wants to go into battle on these grounds?
But match George W’s vision of creaming and siphoning off the winners against a new and inclusive vision-say, of poor inner-city kids getting giant school vouchers of $12,000 a year which they can cash in at any public or charter school, while rich kids get $2,000. The poor kids’ vouchers are so big, and the rich kids’ are so modest, that suburban schools have to compete like mad to attract poor kids if the suburban schools want to survive. The poor kids’ vouchers are so big, in fact, that the inner-city schools start off at an extraordinary advantage-enabling them to cut classroom size and attract gifted teachers. But if the city schools don’t make the most of their windfall, the poor kids with the giant vouchers will be pulled elsewhere.
Against this vision, Bush loses. His own “new” voucher idea looks like what it really is-a way to cut the slices of the old pie which gives more to people who already have the biggest slice. The new new idea of a “reverse-voucher” offers a different kind of pie.
Maybe you don’t like my reverse-voucher idea. All right. Then 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, or doing any number of things America needs to do. Today, more Americans lack access to health care than at the start of the Clinton administration, in 1993. Despite record-breaking economic growth, one out of five children continues to live in poverty.
America has the money. The nation can afford to experiment. It is at a rare historic moment when it can think big. This is no time to rest on America’s laurels, stand pat, and claim that almost everything is “too risky.” The nation 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 the nation may end up going backwards.