Capital Letters: Stump Speeches
In which our man in Washington sees Dick Cheney check into an old folks' home, watches Bush and Gore debate via proxies, and meets good-looking Libertarians with full sets of teeth.
Subj: Cheney at the Old Folks' Home
It wasn't exactly exciting today when vice-presidential hopeful Dick Cheney addressed a crowd at Wesley Village, a residential community for the over-65 crowd in Shelton, Connecticut. Cheney started off on the wrong foot, showing up late. For all sorts of reasons, you don't want to keep the elderly waiting. He's not a dynamic speaker, either. In fact, he's so mellow that I thought he was tailing off into sleep in the auditorium's hot, stale air.
Gore, intoned Cheney in a hypnotic murmur, would put a bureaucrat in charge of health care and wouldn't implement his plan for years to come, while Bush's plan would provide people with immediate choice and relief. For proof, Cheney pointed to 103-year-old Effe Hobby, who has now apparently shaken the hands of vice-presidential candidates in both 1900 and 2000. Last year she spent $624 on prescription drugs. If Bush is elected and delivers on his promise, Cheney explained, she'll spend nothing at all. The implicit message, soft-pedaled by Cheney, was that if Gore is elected, Effe will be six feet under long before her benefits kick in.
Cheney didn't commit any gaffes, but he got a decidedly tepid response. The first, second, and almost only lines to garner applause from this hand-picked group were his promises that every senior would be entitled to the current set of Medicare benefits for the rest of their lives and that any changes to the program would include prescription drug coverage. Supporters were a bit chagrined at the brevity of Cheney's 16?minute speech; he compounded the disappointment by running out without taking questions.
"Some of us are getting feeble-minded," said John R. Turner, a retired DuPont employee, who told me he was going to vote for Bush–Cheney. "We don't really understand our options." He wanted to ask Cheney about who's going to advise seniors on their new options. Turner isn't even sure if he has drug coverage. "I suppose," he said when I asked him about it. "I'm rich, so it doesn't matter really. Most people here are pretty wealthy, or they wouldn't be able to stay here."
Flora DiZazzo, 78, and Jennie Marro, 71, are two residents who don't consider themselves wealthy. Their Medicare HMO is dropping them in January, and they're not sure how they'll get drug coverage come the new year. Cheney "came in late, he went too fast, and then he took off," said Flora, expressing disappointment more appropriate for a deflowered co-ed than a woman of her years and experience. "He was supposed to take questions, that's what we were told." Flora's not sure there's anything in the Bush–Cheney plan for her. "He said there was an income limit of $11,000," she told me as she finished a plate of dessert pastries and sipped a cup of coffee. "That leaves me out!"
Yet it was another sin of omission that hurt Cheney the most with these golden girls. "I don't think he introduced his wife, did he?" asked Flora. "No, he didn't," replied Jennie. "That's why I liked Gore, because he kissed his wife like a man should kiss a woman," said Flora. "Oh, I love that," said Jennie. "Not on the cheek like they're afraid to touch them."
Subj: Word Games
While it was quite a struggle to get the pair to agree to go mano a mano for a national audience in televised debates, the fact is that Gore and Bush have been debating one another via campaign press releases for months. These things get circulated mostly via e-mail and pathetically pick nits on policy proposals, quote journalists back to themselves, and engage in inane wordplay. The Bush folks have a running feature, "The Gore Detector: A Regular Report on Al Gore's Adventures with the Truth." Gore's folks cleverly dubbed Bush's "Change the Tone" tour his "Change the Truth" tour.
Yesterday, I decided to get my proxy Bush–Gore debate in person rather than online. The Center for Economic Development, a middle?of?the?road, business-backed group, rented a room at the Washington Court Hotel for a lunchtime boxing match on Social Security between Princeton economics professor Alan Blinder (weighing in as Gore with glasses and even less hair) and former Federal Reserve Gov. Lawrence Lindsey (weighing in as Bush with a brain and 200 extra pounds). My big hope: that these two august persons would become rock 'em–sock 'em wonks and really lay into one another.
Blinder was up first, making his points with black-and-white overhead projector slides. His points were pretty simple and easy to understand: Social Security is a redistributive program, therefore it doesn't matter if it gives higher-paid workers lousy returns and lower-paid workers slightly less lousy returns. Gore will solve the future cash flow problem (less money coming in from workers than going out to gray?haired slackers) by taxing workers at even higher rates.
Blinder didn't quite put it that way, of course. Instead, he talked of shifting general revenues to the Social Security system, which is essentially the same thing. "The central idea of the Gore Plan," read one of Blinder's slides, is that "the huge budget surpluses open up possibilities that no one ever dreamed of just a few years ago. We can now solve both problems without higher taxes or benefit cuts." Blinder did take the opportunity to criticize Bush's plan. The GOP candidate is, he said, avoiding the tradeoffs a privatized approach requires and thus shows a lack of leadership.
Lindsey beat up on Gore, but he threw more jabs than hay-makers. "I'm delighted that the vice president in version 4.0 has come up with a Social Security plan," said Lindsey. "Gore in version 1.0 said there was no problem." Lindsey put up charts that showed how much worse the system is today than eight years ago. He pointed out, more than once, that even though Gore dips a large ladle into the pot of general revenues, he only solves half the money problem.
Bush's plan, said Lindsey, relies on getting increased returns on the current Social Security surplus by letting individuals invest their personal surplus in stocks, bonds, and even lowly money markets.
All in all, a polite and boring affair. Back in my office, I immediately clicked on my in-box, in search of more biting and petty attacks.
Subj: Harry Browne on the Stump
"It's amazing to see all these people here," a longtime acquaintance told me as we stood in front of the cheese tray at a Harry Browne for President event at an Arlington, Virginia, hotel. "And they even listened to the business attire request in the invitation."
Amazing, indeed. I found myself in a most unlikely situation: surrounded by young, attractive women, each with a full set of teeth, at a Libertarian Party event. I wasn't the only one to notice. Said Troy Dayton, who was covering the event for the digital video Web site Zoom Culture, "You know we are starting to do well when young, good-looking women show up."
Harry Browne has quite a following among the young ladies. "I think I flirted with him once," said Cat DeBurg, a 22-year-old who'd recently dropped out of a teacher credential program to dedicate her life to legalizing dope. "He was making a speech and he looked at me. I smiled and he stuttered over his next line." But don't get the wrong idea. Browne doesn't have any intern problems. Said the purring Cat, "I just shook his hand."
The Libertarian Party is a proud group these days. Browne has gotten generous press, and the party boasts that it's running 1,425 candidates nationwide, more than all other minor parties combined. Such optimism was reflected in the big crowd, which I put at 300. Still, Browne's associates evinced anxiety that not all the attendees were ready for prime time, or even a public viewing. Before bringing Browne on-stage, emcee Michael Cloud ran through manner lessons more appropriate for the first day of kindergarten than a political event for adults. "If you agree to hold questions until the end, clap," he nudged the audience, which dutifully put its hands together. "If you agree not to talk to the person sitting next to you, clap."
There were no eruptions or disruptions. Browne took the stage to a standing ovation and proceeded to deliver what I take to be his stump speech. He asks himself three questions, answering each before moving on to the next.
First up was, Why are you running for president? "I'm running for president because I want to be free to live my life the way I see fit, not how Al Gore or George W. Bush wants me to," said Browne. Then came the reality-check query: You don't think you can win, do you? "I think we could have a Libertarian Congress and president by the end of the decade," he said, pointing out that he wouldn't be spending his time campaigning if he didn't think so. He's in his 60s and if liberty isn't achieved in his lifetime, what good is it for him? That sort of logic probably raised the hopes of many in the room. As for the third question in Browne's self-interrogation, truth be told, I can't remember what it was, though he did say it was derivative of the first two.
He spoke with poise, alternating between incitements to outrage (the federal government determines your toilet size and the size of the holes in your Swiss cheese!) and nostalgic evocations of a past that never was (did you know that America had a pristine health care system that was affordable for everyone until the federal government insured the elderly with Medicare and the poor with Medicaid?).
Getting to the end of his remarks, Browne explained his party building strategy: If people want smaller government, we need them to know that a vote for the people with L next to their name on the ballot will deliver it, he said. This makes sense. Today, people who want a huge military and prayer in public schools instinctively know to vote R. Those who want a larger cut of their neighbor's paycheck know to vote D. As for this election, Browne told us we had nothing to lose. "You are never going to win with Republicans or Democrats," he said. "They are never going to give you what you want."
True enough, though judging from this year's campaign promises, they're likely to keep trying.