Politics

Al Gore: Fighting for Reform Without Change

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National Journal, July 22, 2000

You're frightened, I know. Nervous, twitchy. Things just change so fast these days. Sometimes you feel scared. I understand. We all feel scared sometimes. Well, give me your hand. Listen. Let me tell you about Al Gore.

Al Gore is running for President. President of the United States. A tough job in a dangerous world. Al Gore is the right sort of person for a tough job in a dangerous world. Al Gore is Vice President of the United States. He has been a Senator. He has been a member of the House of Representatives. He has been to Harvard. Think of Al Gore as the safe candidate. FDA-approved. USDA-inspected. CPSC-certified. Childproof and flame-retardant.

With Al Gore, your parents will know you are in good hands. Your children will sleep better. Your father-in-law will respect Al Gore. Your Aunt Gladys will want to play pinochle with Al Gore. For all practical purposes, Al Gore _is_ your Aunt Gladys.

The other guy, the cowboy, the party animal, is not your Aunt Gladys. He is your wild cousin Spike. He is the sort of person who smokes cigarettes behind the gym and stays up too late and drinks too much and rides his motorbike too fast. He supposes he can be President of the United States just on a lark, for fun. His head is full of risky ideas. Reckless ideas. Dangerous. Irresponsible.

Why, he wants the United States to begin junking nuclear warheads unilaterally. Just throw them away! He would do this regardless of what the Soviets do. Sorry -- the Russians. Frat Boy wants to set American security policy on a whole new course. A total rethink. A complete break. The size of the American nuclear arsenal would no longer depend on the size of anybody else's nuclear arsenal, nor would it depend on arms control negotiations. He would leave in place enough American missiles to blow up the planet a few times, but he would switch from strategic deterrence to strategic defense. Yes, that's right. Missile defense. "Star Wars"!

Now, nuclear missiles make you nervous, I know. Right through the Cold War, you bit your nails, wondering if tomorrow would be the day when someone pushed the button and the nuclear holocaust finally came. But after a while you got used to mutually assured destruction. We all did. "If someone fires off bombs that kill millions of innocent American civilians," we all said, "we'll fire off even more bombs and kill even more millions of innocent foreign civilians." The peculiar morality of this policy troubled us, for a time. But here we all are, still alive. You want to risk that?

And "defensive shields"! Come on. The technology does not exist. It may never exist. Even if we offer to share our nonexistent technology, our allies will fear that we are going to retreat to the cloistered safety of our nonworking missile shield. The Chinese and Soviets -- sorry, Russians -- will fear that we will become strategically impregnable. Americans will fear that the shield might fail. Everyone will be full of fear. Is fear what you want?

The cowboy has a plan for your Social Security pension, too. Oh, what a plan. A scheme, even.

Right now, Social Security is a defined-benefit pension plan. You know, like the pension your grandfather retired on 35 years ago. Your company invested a certain amount on your behalf and promised you a certain pension. No guesswork. No hassles. No complicated choices. Well, yes, by the time you retired, it might turn out that your company was no longer around, or couldn't afford to pay the pension it promised. But we all know this will never happen with the government. We know that the Congress of 30 years from now will keep all the promises being made to you by the Congress of today. Just ask the Indians.

Frat Boy would throw all your certainty and safety to the winds. He would repeal the entire Social Security system and replace it with a privatized plan in which you would bear all the risk. OK, maybe not all the risk. Some of it. All right, a little of it. Whatever. The party animal would give you the option of investing about a sixth of your Social Security taxes -- one-sixth! The entire amount, except for the other five-sixths! -- in stocks. Stocks! The things that crashed in 1929! This dangerous scheme would require you to sit down and think about how you want to invest your retirement money. As though you aren't busy enough already.

Some people, of course, are investment whizzes. Regular Warren Buffets. You know who I mean: "the ones who think comfortably about their savings over Scotch in the club looking out at the golf links," as Al Gore put it in June. (Al Gore, son of a Senator, graduate of Harvard, is a stranger to savings, Scotch, and golf.) These privileged few would make out like bandits if Frat Boy got his way.

But let's be frank. You and I both know that Mr. and Mrs. Average American are not all that smart. The future is a long way off for them. These people will not invest wisely. They may think they will; according to a New York Times poll in May, a narrow majority (51 percent) thinks that "private investment accounts" are a good idea. The young are especially cocky: A large majority of 30 to 44-year-olds (66 percent) likes the idea. But how can you be sure they will invest their money safely? What if they are as stupid as all your relatives, friends, and neighbors?

The cowboy's smarty-pants experts insist they would limit investment options to government-approved plans. But this misses the point. You want to _know_ how much retirement money you will have. Stocks and bonds go up and down, down and up. It's confusing. Some people will retire in years when stocks go down instead of up. They will retire with less than they expected. They will be disappointed. Insecure. Frightened. They may not care today. But they'll care tomorrow, you bet. "Stock-market roulette," says Al Gore.

It gets worse. The cowboy is just warming up. He has a fiscal plan. The government is running a surplus. The surplus is growing and growing. Frat Boy wants to kill the golden goose. He wants to cut taxes. Okay, a responsible tax cut might be all right. But the cowboy wants to cut taxes by $1.3 trillion over 10 years. That's trillion, with a "T."

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the government's revenues will total $25 trillion over those 10 years. Imagine slashing that amount by 5 percent! Crazy. Imprudent. But that is the whippersnapper's plan.

Al Gore knows a mad gamble when he sees one. That's what 24 years of continuous government service will do for you. Al Gore wants to cut taxes, all right, but by $500 billion over 10 years, or 2 percent of total revenues. Not 5 percent; 2 percent. That's 3 percentage points less. Not too much. Not too little. Precisely the safe amount.

I wish I could say the Texas wonder boy had no other crazy ideas, but he still isn't finished. Not even close. Wait till you hear his plan for Medicare.

Medicare, you recall, was created in 1965. In the 1960s, it was everybody's idea of what a federal program should look like. Medicare offers the same package of benefits for everybody. One size fits all. No confusing choices. Any color you want, as long as it is black. On the payments side, Medicare is centralized and price controlled. It uses an elaborate system of prices set bureaucratically in Washington, D.C.

All right, so no one would do it that way today and it never worked very well to begin with. Still. We have spent 35 years getting used to it. Would you like to see all those years go to waste?

I thought not. Which is why Al Gore has a plan to "use America's prosperity to strengthen and modernize Medicare." Al Gore would divert tax dollars from general revenues and put them into Medicare, extending its solvency until 2030. And he would modernize it with "reasonable reforms" that would "cut fraud and abuse." Friend, this is truly good news. Thanks to Al Gore, you can have today's Medicare program for another 30 years!

It is painful to me to tell you what Frat Boy has in mind for your Medicare. He would give money to beneficiaries and make them choose their own health plan. As if you needed that kind of headache. Federal employees choose their health plan. So do self-employed individuals. But can you imagine if Medicare did it? There would be dozens, hundreds, thousands of Medicare plans! Some people would choose bad ones. No, it isn't safe. It wouldn't protect you.

I could go on, believe me. But I think you see. This year's election offers you a choice not just of programs but of styles. On the one hand, a hot dog. A daredevil. Evel Knievel. On the other hand, security. Certainty. Safety. That's what you want. We all want that. Wasn't it Abe Lincoln himself who said, "Never change horses"?

Al Gore in 2000. Safety first.