The Agony of Choosing Between Bush and Gore


National Journal, November 4, 2000

Who to vote for? I mean, whom. I hate whom. When I'm President, first thing I do, I abolish whom. Three whom's and you're out. Then I abolish the necktie. That's my platform. But I don't seem to be on the ballot. Hmm. George W. Bush or Al Gore. What to do?

Usually by this time my mind is made up, but not this year. It's not that Bush and Gore lack for differences. It's that their differences are so well matched. Neither man is scary, both are flawed; neither is exciting, both are adequate.

If I could vote on character, that would help. But they both score pretty well on character. Neither is corrupt. Neither will follow an intern's thong underwear into a side corridor. Political character should be neither saintly nor sinister; these guys are in no danger of disqualification on either count.

Personality might be a voting issue. Communicating counts, and Gore is bad at it. His strange combination of arrogance and obsequiousness–he browbeats and grovels at the same time–may wear thin two years into his term. On the other hand, people forget the early Bill Clinton: indecisive, unpresidential, callow, desperate to please. Clinton learned. Maybe Gore could learn. And is Bush ready for a foreign policy crisis? How long would he need to get ready?

I know! I'll vote my special interest. Let's see. Under Bush I get a nice little tax cut. Because I'm single, childless, and not poor, under Gore I get nothing. That settles it.

But wait. I am gay. Bush is a sitting governor who supports his state's sodomy law. OK, that's not a federal issue, but so what? Being gay and voting for a governor who supports his state's sodomy law is like being black and voting for a governor who supports separate drinking fountains.

Besides, I'm Jewish. Vice President Lieberman! It has a nice ring, doesn't it? First Jewish Vice President! I love that. But what about Mary Cheney? Bush's vice presidential nominee has an openly lesbian daughter. Put Bush in the White House, and gays will be in from the cold and part of the Second

Family.Curses. Still no clarity. I am desperate. As a last resort, I must consider voting on policy.

Well, that should be easy enough. So many differences. So many plans. Journalists' incessant baying for specifics has finally paid off with two major candidates who gave every impression of running for President of the Congressional Budget Office. And here's the big joke: The details don't matter.

Oh, they matter, I guess. But get real. The President proposes, Congress disposes. And all of the experts say that after Election Day, Congress will be about as closely divided as it is now, if not more so. Symbolic issues aside, the only way to govern will be down the middle. Any President who would bet on a polarizing one-party strategy is dumber than Bush and more arrogant than Gore.

Take taxes. There's a big difference here between Bush and Gore, without a doubt. Bush wants a big across-the-board rate cut; Gore wants smaller, targeted tax cuts. OK, suppose Bush is elected. He submits a tax bill. Congress says, "That's nice," and throws his tax bill in the trash. Republicans and Democrats on the Hill negotiate something somewhere in between Bush and Gore. On the other hand, suppose Gore is elected. He submits a tax bill. Congress says, "That's nice," and throws his tax bill in the trash. Republicans and Democrats on the Hill negotiate something somewhere in between Bush and Gore. See the difference? I

don't.Sure, the President and his veto threat will set limits and influence the details. But history in the balance this ain't.

"Don't forget the Supreme Court!" holler my friends. The Court, they say, is the real issue in 2000. But I'm scratching my head. I'm sure Gore's nominees will be to the left of Bush's, and Bush's will be to the right of Gore's, but how far left or right?

In Texas, Bush's judicial appointees have been conservatives of a decidedly moderate and nonideological cast. If anything, his picks have pulled Texas' conservative Supreme Court toward the center. Besides, a hard-right nominee would face a bloodbath in the closely divided Senate, and Bush has campaigned as a conciliator who avoids partisan rows.

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.