Politics: Tangled Web

Political inconsistency goes high-tech.


Republicans pan President Clinton for treating his own words not as long-term commitments, but as one-night stands. To turn this line of attack into a winning political strategy, however, Republicans have to show that they are different, that they speak plainly and act accordingly. Such a campaign will falter every time voters catch Republicans in their own fibs, fudges, and flip-flops.

And in 1996, the Internet has enabled ordinary Americans to do just that. Years ago, researchers had to spend hours and days pawing through yellowed newspaper clippings just to document a single evasion. Now, anyone with a reasonable amount of computer skill and political knowledge can conduct an extensive search in a matter of minutes. Candidates have loaded their Web sites with speeches, press releases, and policy statements–perhaps not thinking that anyone would actually read the stuff. Other material is available from a huge variety of on-line sources.

The GOP has some problems. A brief scan of cyberspace shows that Republican politicians have not set high standards of consistency on the issues of tax reform, abortion, and federalism.

The Flat Tax: The flat tax has stirred a great deal of interest among Republicans. In its pure form, this proposal would scrap all existing credits and deductions in return for a single low tax rate. (For detailed information on tax reform, check the Joint Economic Committee's site: http://www.jec.senate.gov/). One school of GOP thought holds that the idea will appeal to voters who are sick of garbled tax rules and grumpy old IRS bureaucrats. A top presidential campaign proclaims that its candidate "wants a fairer, flatter, simpler tax system so people can fill out their tax returns without a lawyer, an accountant, or both. He will end the IRS as we know it, and curb its abuses of taxpayers."

But another school holds that the current system benefits many voters, and if anything, we need to establish even more tax preferences. One campaign calls its candidate "a leading advocate of family tax relief, such as a $500 per child tax credit, 'marriage penalty' relief, adoption tax credits, IRAs for homemakers, and easing the estate tax burden on family businesses."

These diametrically opposed statements might have furnished the basis for a enlightening debate, except for one small problem: Both came from the Dole campaign. I have not wrenched them out of context, from separate documents issued months apart. The two positions appeared together in a Dole for President e-mail bulletin on January 19, 1996. You can also find them on the Dole Web site (http://www.dole96.com/) under "What Bob Dole will do as our President."

The sheer audacity of this contradiction has theological dimensions. Zen monks spend years contemplating such riddles in order to free their minds from earthly logic.

Steve Forbes has made a more straightforward flat-tax proposal, even though the statement on his Web site (http://www.forbes96.com/) does not directly mention the elimination of deductions. For the most thorough explanation and defense of the idea, a computer user must look beyond the presidential candidates to House Majority Leader Dick Armey (http://www.house.gov/armey.flattax/), whose site shows exactly what a tax form would look like under his legislation.

Abortion: As 1996 got under way, pro-choice Republicans lacked a strong voice either on the campaign trail or within the top ranks of the GOP congressional leadership. Among the presidential candidates, Lamar Alexander probably has come the closest to the pro-choice side, yet if you check his Web site (http://www.Nashville.Net/~lamar)–the one with mock red flannel on the home page–you would not think you had contacted NOW. Click "On the Issues/Abortion" and you find: "The federal government should never become involved with abortion–should not subsidize it, encourage it, or prohibit it….Because I believe that abortion is wrong and that states may restrict abortion, I would characterize my beliefs as pro-life."

The issue may still rock the party, however, because the anti-abortion side faces a serious internal split. Some pro-lifers insist that the GOP must hold fast to every word of its firm anti-abortion platform plank, which remained unchanged between 1984 and 1992. Others argue for a modification, saying that the party can broadly embrace the anti-abortion cause without committing itself to certain proposals that could alienate potential allies.

The platform language is tough indeed, and many of its supporters may not have thought it through to its logical conclusion. The platform endorses "legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children." The 14th Amendment secures for everyone "the equal protection of the laws," so under the proposed legislation, state homicide statutes would apply to the killing of fetuses. In other words, prosecutors and courts would have to treat abortion as murder. Women who have abortions, as well as their physicians, would have to go to prison.

Some hard-liners in the pro-life movement do have the intellectual courage to acknowledge and accept this consequence. For the most part, however, those who support the current language have preferred to avert their eyes from its real meaning. Even Pat Buchanan has blinked. His Web site (http://www.buchanan.org/) includes the full text of a speech titled "A Contract With the Unborn." If you download it and conduct a word search, you will not find the words jail, prison, or penalty. The speech does mention the word punish–but only in the context of punishing anti-abortion violence.

To see how Buchanan deals with the penalty issue, one must go to the University of New Hampshire's special site for the state's presidential primary (http://unhinfo.unh.edu:70/unh/acad/libarts/comm/nhprimary/nhprim.html), which has a fine directory of candidate statements on various issues. The directory includes a transcript of a talk radio appearance in which Buchanan said: "I think the woman's a victim in an abortion. I don't believe any of them should be put in jail or punished or chased around or get in their face or anything. My goal is very simple–don't do it, save lives." Fine–but he has specifically pledged his support to the current platform language.

Republican leaders prefer to change the subject when abortion comes up. Sooner or later, they will have to pay attention to what their party has been saying on the issue.

Federalism: Republicans like to recite the 10th Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." They really mean it–except when they don't.

The 1993 Senate debate on the crime bill is especially revealing. The Congressional Record transcript of Senate action is available on Thomas (http://thomas.loc.gov), a not-so-user-friendly site run by the Library of Congress. (Leave a good deal of time for scrolling through extraneous material.) During this debate, Senate Republicans supported crime-bill amendments that amounted to a drive-by assault on federalism. With Sen. Al D'Amato (N.Y.), Phil Gramm sponsored an amendment that would have federalized virtually all firearms crimes, and Gramm is still taking credit for the proposal on his Web site (http://www.gramm96.org/). Dole himself sponsored the most excessive provision. The Dole amendment, later scratched in a House-Senate conference, would have made it a federal crime "to participate in, or to conspire to participate in, a criminal street gang, and to induce others to join the gang." In the Dole version of West Side Story, the role of Officer Krupke would have gone to Janet Reno.

Leave aside the silly proposition that the FBI and DEA are better equipped to handle street crime than local police. The more important point is that, if the 10th Amendment means anything, then the federal government has no business even trying. That concern, however, has not stopped Dole from including a 10th Amendment section on his Web site.

Cynical political handlers may dismiss all these points as academic piffle. They like to repeat the old joke that sincerity is the key to winning elections, and if you can fake that, you've got it made. But in the end, the joke is on them. Voters have always hated it when politicians have trifled with them, and this sentiment has grown more intense ever since President Bush broke his "Read My Lips" promise. More than anyone, Republican politicians should remember that.

In the electronic universe, politicians will find it harder and harder to get away with dissembling. On the Internet, the truth is out there.

John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.