Don't Rush Me! (Part 1)
My friends don't understand why I'm an undecided voter. "You're not an ill-informed mush-head like the voters we see interviewed on TV," they say, which is nice of them. It seems we undecideds, after being overcelebrated, are suffering from something of a press backlash. The New Republic's Michelle Cottle calls undecided voters "the least-informed, least-politically-savvy, least-rational voters around." The Washington Post's Tom Shales says they are "doofus-heavy." Hey, you' talkin' to me!
My friends also say, "You're a Democrat," which is true. I do think we need affirmative government to provide benefits and services and, more generally, to help achieve the traditional American goal of social equality--the equality of all citizens, rich and poor, in the eyes of each other. (I once wrote a book about it. So there, Cottle.)
Which leads to the third thing my friends say: "What's wrong with Gore?" Actually, I don't think there's all that much wrong with Gore. His personal style is often condescending--an expression of social inequality. (If he were really an egalitarian, his slogan wouldn't be "I want to fight for you." It would be "I want to fight for us.") This patronizing affect may cost him the election, but I'm not convinced it represents his true inner self. And I have no doubt that, of the two candidates, he'd be more competent at doing the executive work of the presidency.
Michael Waldman's new memoir of the Clinton White House, POTUS Speaks, reinforced this conclusion in my mind. "Usually Clinton vented his temper, and Gore punctured it with humor," writes Waldman; that's probably the opposite of what most voters would guess. More important, Gore was a force behind some of the most successful moves of the Clinton presidency. As Joe Klein reports in his recent New Yorker piece, Gore told Clinton he should sign the welfare reform bill the Republicans sent him, arguing "It's worth the risk." Gore astutely advised a firm stand against Newt Gingrich in the government-shutdown confrontation. According to Waldman, Gore was also one of the first to urge the successful "Save Social Security First" strategy for avoiding a big tax cut:
Gore saw immediately the strength of posing Social Security against a tax cut. He was acutely aware of the power of the big play, the strength that comes from drawing an unwavering line on the ground--in many ways, more so than Clinton.
At times, it's possible to even work oneself up into a state of enthusiasm over the prospect of President Gore.
So why not just support him? Because it's not that easy! The right question, for a truly conscientious, informed, rational, non-doofusy voter, isn't which candidate would make a better president in the abstract. The question is which candidate will, under the circumstances likely to prevail when he's elected, produce the best result for the nation. The questions are different, most obviously, because the president isn't the only elected official with power over national policy. Policy is produced largely by the interaction of the president and Congress.
There's the rub with Gore, or the first rub, anyway. Because it's not clear that the interaction of Gore with a Democratic Congress wouldn't produce more mischief than progress. While Clinton tried to move the "presidential" Democratic Party to the reformist center, Congressional Democrats remained largely unreconstructed. It was Congressional Democrats, remember, who stopped campaign finance reform in the Clinton years. (Waldman has chapter and verse on this.) It was the Congressional Dems who opposed NAFTA, who wanted a "stimulus package" rather than deficit-cutting in Clinton's first budget. It was Congressional Democrats (as Klein confirms) who opposed any sort of attempt to fix the failed welfare system, insisting that Clinton pursue health care first in what was the worst mistake--make that the worst policy mistake--of Clinton's presidency. Most of what Clinton has achieved has been achieved despite, rather than because of, the Congressional Dems.
If the Democrats win the House, most of the important committee chairmanships would go to unreconstructed liberals with seniority, not to Clintonesque New Democrats. Charles Rangel would chair the Ways and Means Committee; John Conyers would chair Judiciary; John Dingell would chair Commerce; and Pete Stark would get the Joint Economic Committee. Welfare reform would be the first to go. Rangel is too smart to mount a frontal assault on the law, but the many House Democrats who despise it (especially since it seems to be succeeding) could effectively undermine it with a few, little-noticed changes that make extended stays on welfare more possible and work requirements more difficult to enforce. (For example, they could make creating public service "workfare" jobs, which unions hate, difficult by forbidding them wherever a union member might do the work.) Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who this summer so effectively mau-maued Joe Lieberman on affirmative action, says she has a "big housing agenda" planned--and she'll chair the relevant subcommittee. With Conyers, we'd see more of the anti-crime bills that, as one sophisticated liberal once described them to me, dole out money to Democratic mayors and other interest groups in ways less effective than "dropping bundles of money out of an airplane flying over Detroit in the middle of the night."
Gore has so far not shown an inclination to stand up to the Congressional Democrats or to the constituency groups they champion. One of Gore's flaws, a reporter who supports him told me, is that unlike Clinton, he finds it difficult not to pander all the way. Clinton is so skilled he can win the support of blacks or labor while cramming welfare reform and NAFTA down their throats. He'll give a speech, and the interest group will cheer, thinking he's on their side--only later noticing he's promised nothing. Gore, who doesn't have Clinton's gift, feels he actually has to make the promises and deliver on them. (It's here that the insecurity underlying his boastful "fibs" has some bite.) His education plan is a gift to the teachers' unions--lots of money for schools and pay raises, but only new teachers will be tested. His support for affirmative action is so ardent that he even defends the Federal Communications Commission's "tax certificate" program allowing minorities to buy radio and TV stations at a discount and then immediately resell them to big corporations--a program so notorious it was one of the few racial preferences ended on Clinton's watch.