HILL OF BEANS: Talking Heads

Last Thursday night I decided I'd rather have emergency gum surgery performed on me by drunk Chechen soldiers than watch the six Republican candidates debate on television. So my wife and I went to a hockey game. Given that the Bruins were playing, I can only assume no one in New Hampshire watched the presidential debate, either. But it was an odd thing to get to work in the morning and find the conventional wisdom on the debate had already congealed. It went like this: Bush was stiff and not much good, but only a catastrophe could sink him now, so he won. There wasn't a single pundit who bucked it. But in the course of the day, as people around the office discussed it, more and more decided that Bush just abjectly stunk, had looked dumb and cocky at the same time, and was wearing really badly on voters. So maybe there's still a race on. The problem with these debates, as David Frum points out, is that they're not debates at all. They're question-and-answer sessions. Anyone who can keep a patter going for 45 seconds can tough one out, because journalists have no interest in exposing candidates, the way other candidates do. About the best they can do is ask an unexpected question that can at least show the candidate in an unprepped, human light. Good questions last week would have been: Mr. Forbes, should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame? Mr. McCain, how much money have you made in the stock market? Mr. Bauer, what's the last rock record you bought? But that almost never happens. The best debate question I ever saw was at the end of the 1993 L.A. mayor's race. A dozen candidates, many of them pacifist weirdos, were seated in a semicircle being grilled by a handful of journalists, one of whom thought to ask the candidates how many guns they owned. It was less than a year after the riots, and most of the peaceniks turned out to have considerable firepower at home. I remember that Richard Katz, James Carville's candidate, who was liberal mushiness incarnate, owned a .38. Nate Holden, Mister Save-My-Inner-City-Nabe-from-Violence, had a handgun, and Julian Nava, the apostle of urban "vibrancy," had a hunting rifle. At last week's debate, Steve Forbes was the only outright loser. The most embarrassing moment came when Forbes attacked Bush for considering a rise in the retirement age, and Bush read back an editorial Forbes had written arguing for exactly the same thing. Forbes must have been worried that there were still a few journalists -- like me -- who hadn't got wind of his abject humiliation. So the following morning, in full sour-grapes mood, he created a fresh humiliation. "At least you knew what I was doing in my youth!" he told a bunch of reporters. "I was writing magazine columns! Others haven't been forthcoming about what they were doing ... Some candidates haven't been willing to answer certain questions about what they were doing." That reminded me of something a Republican consultant told me in 1994, in explaining why dire consequences would follow from the rise of Newt Gingrich. "America hates a know-it-all," he said. But if there's one thing America hates worse than a know-it-all, it's a tattletale.Netscape Goats Not only did Forbes lose, he made Bush look stronger. Both Forbes and the Manchester Union-Leader (which endorsed Forbes following the debate) have lambasted Dubya for refusing to rule out taxes on the Internet. Provided that the total level of taxes can be kept as low as possible, this is the first Bush position I actually find myself liking. As of now, all transactions over the Internet are free of sales tax. In the recent budget, consensus solidified that they should remain so, and both parties are elbowing each other aside to claim credit. This is surprising, because a tax-free Internet is self-evidently an appalling policy. All it does is provide a wholly arbitrary subsidy to the fellow who sells flowers or books or prescription drugs through a phone bank, rather than in a florist's or book shop or pharmacy. It's totally unfair. It's easy to see why this happened politically. The big entrepreneurs of the high-tech economy tend to be Democrats, and they benefit monetarily. In fact, this is about the only area where Democrats rule out taxes. President Clinton's economics guru Gene Sperling claims any Internet taxes would be "distortive" (and the President fought for language to that effect at last week's WTO meeting in Seattle), while Gore hails a "free-trade zone" on the Internet. But Republicans can't oppose them. They're trapped by their identity as the party that always opposes taxes everywhere, as well as their rhetoric that it's the raw quantity of taxes that matters, not who pays them. For decades they've dismissed any and all complaints about taxes being unfair, and now they're hoisted by their own petard: Republicans are stuck extolling a tax system that arbitrarily rewards the Maya Angelou-reading environmentalist fags who run Windchimes-dot-com, and drives out of business the hardware-store owner who's voted Republican all his life (while wrecking the business district of the small town he lives in). Taxing access to the Internet is another story. Bush won't rule that out, either -- and he should. That would relegate us to a situation like Britain's over the past few decades, when you had to sign up for a "television licence." Besides, since the Internet's used primarily for pornography and surveillance, why should I have to subsidize that every time I log on?Trading Places I enjoyed the WTO demonstrations last week. The crestfallen Seattle Mayor Paul Schell still doesn't know what hit his city: "This administration has people who marched in the 1960s," he said. "The last thing I wanted was to be mayor of a city that called in the National Guard." Well, yeah, Paul -- but the more interesting question is how you did. Between sanctimonious liberals and vulgar capitalists, my own preference is for the vulgar capitalists. What's really confusing about the crowd surrounding Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Paul Schell, though, is the way they manage to combine both ideologies into one. The best explanation I've seen of how that happened comes from Le Coup D'Žtat Invisible, an anti-Europe screed by the former Mitterrand counselor Jean-Claude Barreau. Since leaving politics, Barreau has devoted himself to writing raving (I choose the word carefully) attacks on globalism in all its forms. He thinks the crucial experience of the left in France was to see its "left-wing" aspirations rejected by poor people in 1968: "Before 1968, in fact, the young French bourgeois who dreamed of power idealized the people. They spoke of proletarians, they celebrated the singing tomorrows, and hid neither the hammer nor the sickle. Yet the proletarians didn't adhere to the surrealist slogans of the Parisian classroom. A generation later, even after having sobered up and grown into pillars of society, these two-bit rebels retained from their brief revolutionary experience a distrust of the people." You could say that the same thing happened in the United States when the working classes failed to support the riots at the Democratic convention in 1968. So today, when "liberals" think of the poor, they don't think of singing tomorrows. They think of George Wallace. Hence the rhetorical overreaction to the "violence" in Seattle. The violence in Seattle was all against property; not a single person was seriously injured. But Jamie Rubin showed that mendacity is a commodity that can be imported duty-free from Kosovo, by proclaiming on behalf of the State Dept.: "When peaceful protest transforms itself into violence, that not only does a disservice to the protesters but does a disservice to the perception of the U.S. in the world." President Clinton said he backed the peaceful protesters but disagreed with the violent ones. How could one distinguish the wishes of the "violent" protesters from the wishes of the "peaceful" ones? During the protests on Capitol Hill, the decidedly bourgeois residents begged the police to leave their neighborhood alone. Probably because, if television newscasts are anything to go by, the peaceful/violent distinction is not one the riot police were particularly vigilant about drawing. Rubin and Clinton sound like a couple of guys scavenging desperately for an excuse not to listen.

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