There seems to be widespread agreement, across the political spectrum, that despite all the campaign baloney, this presidential election has become a bracing debate about a fundamental issue. A Wall Street Journal news article declared that the first Bush-Gore debate "settled any argument over what this year's election is about." It is "more fundamental than scandals or tax cuts." It is "the very role of government in the 21st century." Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted "the fundamental nature of the choice" and praised Bush and Gore for giving it to us. David Broder wrote that after last week's second debate, "the 2000 election emerged more clearly than ever before as a choice between a liberal and a conservative."
Political scientist James Q. Wilson, writing in Slate, says that the stark and substantive nature of the dispute between the two candidates even contradicts traditional learning about presidential campaigns. The "great divide," according to Wilson, is that "Al Gore trusts the government more than he trusts the people, and George Bush trusts the people more than he trusts government."
This somewhat self-satisfied consensus that we're having ourselves a serious argument about the proper role of government gives the candidates—and the voters—too much credit, I think. It's certainly not an argument that Adam Smith or Karl Marx would recognize. As Wilson, at least, notes, socialism and libertarianism are not on the table. The "left" candidate accepts capitalism and the "right" candidate accepts the welfare state.
But we are not hearing even a serious argument about more modest changes in the size and influence of government. Bush is happy to talk about things the government shouldn't do to you, but he never mentions anything the government shouldn't do for you. Indeed, his list of new things the government will start doing for you is surely almost as long as Gore's. Meanwhile, Gore is happy to tout new stuff the government will do for you, but he never attempts to argue that a new benefit program is worth paying higher taxes for or that a cleaner environment is worth some economic burden. Indeed, he's got a tax cut just like Bush and insists that new environmental regulations will miraculously increase economic efficiency.
In short, we remain in Free Lunch Land, whither we were led by Ronald Reagan two decades ago. Atmospheric conditions in Free Lunch Land make any genuine debate about the proper role of government impossible. That's because a genuine debate (about almost anything, and certainly about government) involves an acknowledgment of trade-offs. When both sides assert that their positions have no downside—rather than attempting to persuade the audience that the trade-off is worthwhile—that's not a debate. It is more like a revival meeting.
The big difference between now and the Reagan era is the federal budget surplus. This looks like a coupon good for a real free lunch. But it isn't. Even putting aside doubts about whether the projected trillions will actually materialize, this good news doesn't make the trade-offs go away. A dollar spent is one less dollar available for tax cuts. A dollar in tax cuts is one less dollar available for some national project most citizens might find worthwhile. It's hard to blame politicians for failing to note the tragic inevitability of trade-offs in the course of a heated, high-stakes campaign. But then let's not pretend that the campaign is a serious debate about government.
It is easy to be misled by all the talk about privatization and harnessing market forces. The serious issue of principle about government is what society owes its individual members. How society meets those obligations is a practical question, which should not be confused with the issue of principle. That is a criticism of both sides of the current alleged debate. On education, for example, Republicans do not challenge the principle that society owes all children an education, whether they can afford one or not. So there is no call for Democrats to take a principled stand against even experimenting with vouchers. But there is also no call for Republicans to frame the voucher debate as a morality play about freedom and capitalism versus big government. It's still big government footing the bill. And the proven magic of private markets may or may not work in halfway situations where some of the conditions underlying that magic (large numbers of buyers and sellers, etc.) may not apply.
If you believe him, George W. Bush is less a principled conservative than an odd fusion of neoliberalism and the least conservative aspect of Reaganism. Rather than reducing government, he is in favor of running it more efficiently and/or not paying for it. Is there anything to which this Republican is willing to say, as Margaret Thatcher used to delight in saying, words like, "No. You cannot have that. It's not the government's responsibility. Tough it out"? In the first debate, Jim Lehrer asked for an example of leadership in a crisis. Bush's response—almost a parody of liberalism—was about how he got government aid for some flood victims and then hugged them and cried. (Public crying used to be a no-no. It killed the presidential ambitions of Democrats like Edmund Muskie and Pat Schroeder. Now a Republican brags about it.) By the second debate, Bush was agreeably endorsing such liberal exotica as hate-crimes legislation and Third World debt forgiveness.
Of course you may not believe him. You may think that once in office, Bush will drop the mask and reveal himself as a pure conservative. That suspicion is why many are voting for Gore. It's also why many are voting for Bush. Gore, to a lesser extent, is both gaining and losing votes based on the assumption that he's not what he appears to be.
So maybe we are having that fundamental debate about government after all. It's just that the candidates aren't part of it.