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By the same token, Gore's appointees would lean left, but probably not much further left than Bill Clinton's (especially if Gore has a Republican Senate to deal with). A few Supreme Court appointees leaning mildly left or right will certainly make a big difference sometimes, and a marginal difference often. But a big difference often? Nah.
Education? The news there is how much Bush and Gore agree upon: expanded federal role, teacher testing, more school competition (vouchers for Bush, charter schools for Gore). Foreign policy? Bush decries American involvement in peacekeeping, but he will change his tune in office. In the end, neither his nor Gore's foreign policy would look a great deal different from Clinton's, because there aren't all that many other choices.
So maybe 2000 is the year of distinctions without a big difference. The year of low stakes. Or maybe not. There are still entitlements to consider.
I mean entitlements for the elderly: Social Security and Medicare, mainly. Social Security and Medicare are both headed for insolvency as the baby boom generation retires over the next few decades. "We're in the eye of the storm," says C. Eugene Steuerle, a senior fellow of the Urban Institute. "There will be huge deficits in the future if we try to maintain currently promised growth in benefit levels."
Moreover, retirement grows more expensive as it grows longer. Today's retirees, Steuerle notes, will typically spend about a third of their adult lives in retirement--drawing government benefits most of the while. A shrinking pool of younger workers, many of them poorer than the average retiree, will be paying for those benefits. "It's not that it's not affordable," says Steuerle. "But is that the kind of society we want to have? Extraordinary leisure in the last portion of life, but extraordinary pressure on the middle portion?"
And is it the sort of government we want? Federal spending on people 65 and over accounted for 22 percent of the budget in 1971. Today the figure is 35 percent. In another 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, it will be 43 percent. Under current policies, Steuerle says, by the middle of the century spending on the elderly will absorb something like 80 percent of federal revenues. Government of, by, and for the retired.
Eventually, old folks' entitlements need to be reformed and curtailed. Not cut, because benefits would still grow--just not as fast as now promised. And here's a difference: Bush supports structural reforms of Social Security and Medicare. Gore does not.
Some of my friends say that Gore, the Democrat, might do a Nixon-goes-to-China on entitlements. I doubt it. After running against entitlement reforms, Gore would have a hard time reversing field even if he wanted to; and, in a closely divided Congress, either party would be crazy to field a big reform push against the promise of a Gore veto. Chances are that a Gore presidency would mean four to eight years of patchwork repairs. More of the same.
Bush, on the other hand, wants to let today's workers divert a portion of their Social Security payments into private accounts. He also wants to let Medicare recipients opt out for private insurance policies. If he wins, there may be a reform bill, and there will certainly be a bipartisan commission. Either way, the election will have opened the door to a debate about fundamentals.
In fact, even if Bush loses, he will have proved that you can propose dramatic entitlement reforms and still run a fiercely competitive national campaign. The era in which retirement programs were the "third rail" of American politics (touch them and you die) is over. The Bush candidacy ended it. That's historic.
Too bad about Bush's fuzzy math. Actually, the problem is fuzzy Bush. He is no more willing to talk about hard entitlement choices than Gore is. In fact, Bush is the free-lunch guy. He talks as if the stock market can pay the retirement benefits of two generations at once, which it can't. Clinton discredited the whole idea of a broad health care reform by promising free lunches and failing to deliver. What if Bush does the same thing to entitlement reform?
Americans get a shot at a major program reform about once in a decade: transportation deregulation in the 1970s, tax reform in the 1980s, welfare reform in the 1990s. Will entitlements be the big reform of the 2000s? If Bush wins, the door opens. If he wins and then messes up, he jams the door shut.
So the big swing issue of 2000 is entitlement reform, and it's well ahead of whatever comes second. The only question is which way the issue swings.