HILL OF BEANS: The Pro-Health Party
I keep vacillating between two camps: those who think this presidential election resembles the 1988 Dukakis/Bush pere contest and those who don't. In a 30-minute phone conversation the other day, 29 minutes and 15 seconds of which were devoted to discussing how magnificent Pedro Martinez is, MUGGER convinced me (during the 45 seconds devoted to trivial matters) that the 1988 parallel fails to take into account how lacking in political savvy the Dukakis campaign was, and how loaded with it Dubya's is.
True enough. But strong resemblances between the senior Bush and Gore are once again emerging. Both veeps have faced the great liability for a servant of an innovative administration that was fabulously successful in getting what it wanted: intellectual exhaustion.
George the First found himself yoked to Reaganism at just the point where there was precious little in Reaganism left to enact. Once in office, he couldn't cut taxes because deficits were so high, he couldn't build up the military because the Soviet Union was collapsing, he couldn't stand up to labor because unions were dead and he couldn't restore "a sense of optimism" to a country that had it in spades. All he could do was "fiddle and diddle," as Johnny Most used to put it, passing nonce legislation that no one (and certainly no one in his party) was clamoring for, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
Gore is in the same boat. Welfare is now so reformed that you can't reform it further without reforming it out of existence. Free trade is now so widespread that there's almost no one we'd want to trade with that we're not trading with already. As a result, he, and all the Democrats running with him, look slow on their feet. Right-wingers are catching on to their rhetoric and beginning to rebut them rather nicely, able to recast as extremism what six months ago passed for common sense. Take the New York Senate race. Half a year ago, Republicans were petrified of talking about abortion. Now, the GOP has a presidential candidate who is (albeit in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink way) pro-choice and a senatorial candidate who's down-the-line pro-choice, except on two side-issues where Americans are down-the-line not: partial-birth abortion and parental notification. It's thus not hard to make Hillary Clinton sound like an absolutist. The Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly may be only mouthing a Republican talking point when he says of Hillary, "She doesn't want me as a father to know if my daughter is having an abortion*my minor daughter, as young as 11 or 12." But it's a hell of a talking point.
The same with Gore's use of the word "risky." More cynical voters (and here I quote from the most misogynistic reader letter I've ever received) look at "risky" as "a code word designed to appeal to female voters and their obsession with security -- the extent of which is so great that they are willing to sacrifice all of their freedom to obtain it." But dwelling on "risky" as oratory misses the point. Gore's trope is beginning to sound less like oratory and more like autobiography. Gore is coming off as an Old Biddy, totally risk-averse. His campaign is a perfectly competent execution of the Democratic playbook. Unfortunately, the play he's executing is the equivalent of the "prevent" defense that has been responsible for more blown two-touchdown leads than any phenomenon in the history of the NFL. It hasn't been until this spring that Republicans have been able to convince the voting public to hold it up to the ridicule it deserves. The best line came from Pennsylvania's Republican governor (and veep favorite), Tom Ridge, who claimed a couple of weeks ago that Gore would have advised against signing the Declaration of Independence on the grounds that it was a "risky" document. Gore is getting into the most dangerous kind of Jimmy Carter/Dan Quayle territory: people are ceasing to take him seriously.
For the last four years, it looked like the Clinton/Gore 1996 theme-"build a bridge to the 21st century" -- would long stand as the most corrupt, contentless, condescending and intellectually insulting slogan in the history of political campaigns. But that was before Gore began laying out his "Family Agenda" in Atlanta last week. The centerpiece of this agenda is a "national goal" to eliminate deaths from colon, breast and prostate cancer within 10 years. That will certainly improve things! "I know from my own experience," Gore says, "what cancer can do to a family." (Which goes to show it takes all types, doesn't it? I mean, cancer has been just great for my family.) He even gets into details.
One of the points in his plan is to "develop precise blood tests for virtually every cancer within five years to revolutionize early detection." ("Precise" is one of those adjectives that alerts the astute political observer that there's bullshit being shoveled.) Another is to "double funding for cancer research." This is a laudable goal, but one wonders how he'll explain it to gay activists. Because the problem, as Michael Fumento has pointed out for years, is that there are only so many research cytologists and oncologists and hematologists in the country, and cancer funding and AIDS funding compete directly for their services. Of course we could import -- through immigration -- the doctors necessary to step up such research. The problem is that, downticket of Gore in Michigan, Debbie Stabenow is benefiting from a dirty anti-immigrant campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham. It's the Democrat's most likely Senate pickup, and Stabenow's central issue is that H1B visas for technologically sophisticated foreigners "take good American jobs."
There is, it must be granted, an ultimate cleverness to Gore's cancer plan. The most concrete of Gore's proposals are (1) to "eliminate cost-sharing for mammography and other preventative benefits" and (2) to "expand Medicaid coverage to cover colorectal cancer." This is what the "Family Agenda" is really about. Gore's overriding goal is a slow-motion nationalization of the health industry. He knows he can't carry this out in one fell swoop, as the Clintons tried to do in 1993. He knows there's no constituency for nationalizing health care patient by patient, by letting Medicaid creep into ever higher income brackets. So he's trying to pull it off disease by disease.
Presumably, it won't be long before Gore claims Republicans are "soft on cancer," and that George W. Bush is in the back pocket of the "pro-cancer lobby."
CNN's ace psephologist Bill Schneider has taught us a lot over the years. For example, that elections hinge on the number of votes cast. And that who wins has a lot to do with how many people vote for Republicans and how many for Democrats. And that what presidential elections are all about is winning those "all-important" electoral votes.
But the apotheosis of schneiderismo came last week when Judy Woodruff saw fit to ask whether Al Gore should be worried about Ralph Nader stealing votes from him.
"Offhand," Schneider replied, "it does not look like Nader will be much of a factor. Two reasons: one, Nader's message is targeted at angry voters, and there aren't a lot of angry voters out there. He's running on an anti-trade, anticorporate resentment, and that's not a big cause right now. Two, he's running on the left."
Schneider then broke down Nader's appeal regionally, before concluding: "In 1996, Nader was on the ballot in only 22 states, and he spent less than $5000. This year, Nader's goal is to get on the ballot in 50 states and to raise and spend $5 million. All of that could make Nader a factor this year, particularly on the West Coast." If you compare the way he comes into this argument ("it does not look like Nader will be much of a factor") with the way he comes out of it ("All of that could make Nader a factor"), you arrive at the Schneiderian Mean, the formula that makes him the perfect pollster for television audiences: A is true for the following reasons, which show A to be untrue. (Gee, sir, they didn't teach us that in journalism school.)