10 Prez Soundbites To Watch For

Every four years, presidential elections provide the backdrop for a nationwide discussion on how we're doing and where we're going. Unfortunately, it seems this campaign will be fought over ground the nation has already covered, rather than on new ideas and emerging issues. While the need for reform in many public institutions is widely recognized, the 1996 campaign may be most simply categorized as a referendum on whether the United States should shore up the foundation built over the past 35 years or tear it down and start anew. Should the nation provide a reasonably effective safety net for its less fortunate citizens? Should the tax burden be shared fairly across society? Are efforts to create a more integrated culture productive? To those with a progressive view, the answer is not only "Yes," but "Haven't these things already been decided?" The progress of the past 35 years (the social safety net, environmental and worker protection, civil rights) is under assault, and this election will be a major turning point. Despite reports that the Progressive tradition in American politics is dead, there are signs of renewed vigor, especially in books like E. J. Dionne's They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate The Next Political Era (Simon & Schuster) and James Carville's We're Right, They're Wrong (Simon & Schuster). So as the election approaches and the rhetoric heats up, here are 10 bits of sound-bite subterfuge you should be on the lookout for: 1. The Market Is All-Wise The basic underpinning of the belief that government is useless is that the market can do it better. The truth is that the market can act irrationally, unfairly and even dangerously. Consider the current gas prices in the middle of a worldwide oil glut, or the meat industry's self-created e.coli scare. 2. Ronald Reagan Was A Great President Sure, he made us all feel good, but if it weren't for his administration, there wouldn't be any debate over how to balance the budget because it would already be balanced. Reagan bought into a wacky idea called supply-side economics that turned out to be the biggest financial boondoggle in modern times and made Ross Perot and his on-again/off-again candidacy possible. 3. The Flat Tax Will Cure What Ails Us It's funny to think back four years to how badly Jerry Brown was ridiculed for supporting a flat tax. This is just another supply-side plan. And don't be fooled by the alluring title: despite its complexity, taxation has become more progressive in the past 15 years. The Flat Tax's soft underbelly is that it's not an income tax -- in fact, revenue gains from sales of stocks wouldn't be taxed under the proposal that's now making the rounds in Washington. 4. We Should Turn the Reins of Government Over to the States Wasn't the Constitutional Convention called for exactly the opposite reason? Not only have states failed to prove that they can handle such responsibility, but this whole argument shows through as hypocrisy when you consider that advocates of returning power to the states are happy to keep federal authority over securities transactions and punitive damages. 5. The Minimum Wage Will -- a) Bankrupt Small Businesses, or, b) Help Improve the Working Poor's Lot. Let's face it, this is a Band-Aid on a major problem. Sure, raising the minimum wage is the moral thing to do, but alone it won't have much effect either way. 6. The Deficit Is The Overriding Concern Of Our Time If it's such a big problem, why is Congress giving the Pentagon $7 billion more than it asked for, and why are many legislators championing a major capital gains tax cut? It's a great excuse for defunding a social program, but it's not as convincing when it is only used selectively. 7. If Government Can't Solve The Problem, It Has Failed If you use this kind of reasoning, you'd never golf unless you could hit par every time. People say (sometimes on the radio) that 30 years of welfare programs haven't "solved" the problem. True, but you can't discount how many of those programs have "helped" the problem. Again, this is a pretext for defunding programs. 8. "Liberals" Are Stuck In An Outdated Way Of Thinking Actually, it seems the conservatives are more concerned with the past (Reaganomics, the construction of the "welfare state," the establishment of affirmative action). One of the great ironies of the current race is that Bill Clinton may be the only traditional Republican in the race. Although liberal on social issues, Clinton has been a friend to big business during his first three years and has been more fiscally prudent than Reagan or Bush. 9. It's Really Not That Bad Out There You may actually hear this line of reasoning, developed by writers like Robert Samuelson and Michael Kinsley, from Clinton in the coming months. There are statistics on standards of living and such that support this, but the growing chasm between rich and poor is a problem that is only getting worse and must be addressed. Even conservatives like Kevin Phillips and Alan Greenspan believe it is an issue that threatens our social fabric. Author James Fallows puts it this way: would you rather live in Switzerland, one of the world's most refined cultures with a small divide between rich and poor, or in the Philipines, where the rich live in secured communities and swim at fenced-in beaches and where the poor live in garbage dumps? 10. The World Economy Is Bad For America It's hard to say if Pat Buchanan's basic pitch will show up again, but it is an issue that will have to be addressed. The world economy, the information age, whatever you want to call it, is here to stay, and our challenge is to adapt in a sustainable, prosperous way. The question of how America fits into the 21st Century, not how to devolve the federal government, should be the focus of this election. And if it's allowed to become the focus, whoever has the better answer will win. Can government be useful in coping with these changes? Dionne believes the government's involvement is crucial, writing that "the transition will be successful only if government acts creatively, and with a strong concern for social justice." All this being said, perhaps the best way for either Bob Dole or Clinton to be elected is to take a page from George Bush (don't laugh, I'm serious). You may recall during his campaign for president, he pledged to be remembered as the "Education President." You may not, because after being elected he did nothing to deliver on the promise. Carville puts it in his trademark partisan/folksy way: "The real answer to our social problems is, like the parable says, giving out fishing lessons; it is not, like the Republicans say, draining the pond." Carville refers to current proposals to cut access to college loans, head start programs in grade schools, the Americorps program and funding for job training. So if facing the future instead of revisiting the past is on voters' minds come November, if people decide that the government serves a useful purpose, and if education, in its many manifestations, can come to be viewed as the social program of choice for the next century, expect to see four more years of Bill Clinton.


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