Al Gore must be rather urgently looking for the phrase that will capture, for voters, the essence of what is wrong with George W. Bush--a theme that will tie together several critiques into a coherent whole and, as my one-time boss Sen. Ernest Hollings used to say, "throw a net over him."
"Risky schemes," Gore's Clinton-parodying first try, didn't seem to work. Nor do accusations of heartlessness or intolerance stick to Bush. Tying the Texas governor to the oil industry would have promise if a) it weren't so reminiscent of the dismal energy politics of the Carter era and b) Gore's own family didn't owe its financial security to Occidental Petroleum.
But kausfiles has a phrase to suggest: "What's he hiding?"
The virtue of this theme is the way it ties together the most high-minded and the most low-minded critiques of Bush, the substantive arguments about Bush's Social Security plan and the tabloid arguments about his possible drug use and misspent youth.
Social Security: Bush wants to let workers set aside a portion of their payroll taxes--around 2 percent of earnings, it's assumed--in individual accounts that could be invested in the stock market. These accounts would be voluntary; workers could decide to stay under the old Social Security system with its fixed, guaranteed benefit. If they opted for individual accounts, they'd have to give up some of that guarantee, a tradeoff of risk for potential reward.
Clearly the terms of that tradeoff are the key to evaluating Bush's plan, but Bush is keeping them to himself. Will those who "opt in" to the private account system lose any guarantee of benefits? Half of their guarantee? When will they be required to choose? When they're 21? 25? 35? Can they later change their minds? Why won't Bush tell us these details? What's he hiding?
If partial privatization is such a good idea, why not total privatization? Many conservative economists advocate just that. Is it what Bush has in store? Asked recently by the Wall Street Journal, Bush ducked the question, saying he was focusing on "getting the first step done." First step of what? What's the second step? What's he hiding?
Irresponsible youth: Bush says that he hasn't used drugs since 15 years before his father's inauguration, which takes him back to January 1974. (See this earlier item.) What drugs (if any) did he do before then? Why not tell us and get it over with? He says, "When I was young and irresponsible I was young and irresponsible." Meaning? What's he hiding?
There's a pattern here! In each case Bush has attempted to draw an arbitrary line, cutting off the intriguing, important details--and he's drawn the line seemingly for political expedience rather than to vindicate any vital principle. Indeed, the parallel is so glaring that simply by asking "What's he hiding?" with respect to Social Security, Gore might not-so-subconsciously raise all the seamy personal questions. He could claim high-minded concern while triggering low-minded concern--like Joe Klein accusing Clinton of "the Politics of Promiscuity." That's the beauty of it.
(There's even a tenuous policy connection: One reason Bush's Social Security plan may save money is that young workers will miscalculate and, when forced to choose, let the allure of private accounts lead them to permanently surrender their full guaranteed benefits. In other words, Bush is counting on them to be young and irresponsible when they're young and irresponsible.)
I don't want to push the point too far. To establish a real pattern, as every journalist knows, two examples aren't enough. You need three. And I'm having trouble thinking of a third area where Bush's failing takes the form of a suspicious failure to disclose. (His lack of gravitas, for example, is hardly hidden.)
Nominations from kausfiles readers are gratefully accepted.