Gary Hart's re-entry into the Democratic race has left the field of dwarfs wider, not taller. He speaks passionately about the need for Democratic "new ideas" on economic policy, but as for breaking from the party's statist lockstep, his own record falls short.
Consider how he voted in the Senate. According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which analyzed 86 economic votes during the 99th Congress, Hart backed competition and free-market principles only 21 percent of the time—the eighth-lowest score in the Senate. Even Edward Kennedy scored better, with 25 percent.
That's not just the view of a free-market think tank. The centrist National Journal reckoned Hart's 1986 economic conservatism score at 20 percent.
Yet Hart appeals to many young pro-market voters, who apparently see him as a libidinous Adam Smith. One way he wins their support is by sprinkling speeches with passages such as this: "The problem with big government is the myth that it can solve every problem and meet every challenge. The problem of big government, frankly, is the demand placed on it by every interest group in our society." Gary Hart gives great sound-bite.
And grant the man some credit: He has taken a few sound positions. He voted against the Chrysler bailout, and he continues to fight protectionism. He says the Gephardt Amendment would draw the same blood as Smoot-Hawley: It "would fire the opening shot of a new trade war, and then draft American workers, farmers and businesses to do the heavy fighting. The difference is, in a military war, there are sometimes winners. In a trade war, everybody loses."
But fittingly, it was in a trade policy statement that his true philosophy slipped out. "We must make clear to the President that we do not subscribe to the laissez faire, 'let it happen,' economic theology," he said in the Congressional Record of October 15, 1986. "We believe in aidez faire—which means, literally, 'to make it happen.' We need a policy to help us master the forces of economic change and to use those forces to America's advantage."
With those few lines he said a lot about himself and his mindset:
1. He likes French.
2. He scorns free-market economics. (It's odd that a former divinity student should belittle a school of thought by calling it a "theology.")
3. He lusts for central planning. By "us," he did not mean "us individual consumers and producers," he meant "us Washington policymakers." And a glance at a thesaurus points up some creepy connotations for the word master, "subdue," "quell," "crush," "reduce," "beat down," and "hold in bondage." No hidden hand for Gary.
4. He's one up on Joe Biden: he plagiarizes himself. His October 15, 1986, statement was nearly a word-for-word copy of one he had entered into the Record on August 8.
So what does he want to do to the economy? It's hard to tell from the title he has given to the collection of his most recent speeches, "Reform, Hope and the Human Factor: Ideas for National Restructuring." With that one title, he manages to invoke Robert LaFollette, Ronald Reagan, Graham Greene, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
The fullest account of Hart's vision lies in his 1983 manifesto, A New Democracy. The book called for an "industrial strategy" but denied that it would consist of government control or MITI-style planning. As disclaimers go, that's about as convincing as George Michael's assurance that his soft-porn music video "is not about casual sex."
Once the book got down to specifics, it said that the president should act as "the principal arbitrator" among business, labor, and government. Management would promise modernization and job security, workers would promise productivity increases, and Washington would seal the deal by targeting financial aid to deserving parties. Under Hart's plan, government would just assert the national interest, not aggrandize its own power. Members of Congress would not win aid for unworthy concerns in their constituencies. The president would not rig the process for political gain. In other words, angels would govern.
Two hundred years ago, James Madison taught that if men were angels, no government would be necessary. But like all statist visions, Hart's plan hinges on leaders of superhuman virtue. He vaguely recognized this in the book's introduction, where he lamented the "erosion of national character" and declared that America's test "is moral, not economic—ethical, not political."
During this campaign, Hart is pleading with us to skip the character issue and instead look at his ideas. Ironically, to take his ideas seriously is to demand a president who would never lie, cheat, or break a solemn vow.
John J. Pitney, Jr., is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: The Tell-Tale Hart".