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Jewish World Review Oct. 12, 1999 /2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Seizing the center -- or 'W' is for winner -- TO UNDERSTAND THE PRESENT, it helps to remember the past. Remember all the fun Mort Sahl used to have with Dwight Eisenhower? You may have to be reminded who Mort Sahl was -- he was a political satirist with a sharp eye and a sharper tongue back in the charcoal-gray Fifties. It was an era before politicians had started satirizing themselves; now all that is required of satirists is straight reporting. Who, after all, could do a better Jesse Ventura than Jesse Ventura?

You may not have to be reminded who Dwight Eisenhower was. Neither did the millions of Americans who voted for him in two landslides, despite those sentences of his that defied diagramming.

The secret of the general's political success may have been his natural, almost gravitational hold on the center. He didn't need words. He seemed to have an instinct for finding and seizing the high ground, which in American politics, time and again, has been the middle ground. You can see the same process at work in another, supposedly dumb presidential candidate this year. He's dumb like a winner. It took this generation's Bush only a seemingly offhand comment to straighten out his party's really dumb congressional wing. The subject was the Earned Income Tax Credit, a Republican achievement that the Republican leadership was about to tinker with for the sake of an accounting procedure. "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor,'' said W., and that was the end of that.

Now W. has said exactly what is wrong with all the Dick Armeys and John Kasiches in his party without ever having to mention their names. (Ike, too, liked to blow away any opposition in his own party without giving them the satisfaction of hearing their names.)

Here is what W. said, and Republicans who want their party off the Endangered Species list would do well to listen

"Too often my party has focused on the national economy to the exclusion of all else, speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, C.B.O. and G.N.P. Of course we want vigor and growth in our economy. But there are human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence. And the strongest arguments for conservative ideals -- for responsibility and accountability and the virtues of our tradition -- is that they lead to greater justice, less suffering, more opportunity.''

Even if some speechwriter wrote those words, W. had the wit to recognize their power, their appeal, and mainly their common sense.

Something tells me that W., who has never confused himself with a scholar, hasn't read the greatest unknown economist of the century -- Wilhelm Roepke. But he instinctively echoes Roepke's reminder that "the vital things are those beyond supply and demand and the world of property. It is they which give meaning, dignity, and inner richness to life, those purposes and values which belong to the realm of ethics in the widest sense.''

Good economic policy makes a good society possible, even a good life, but it should not be confused with either. Economics is a means; the kind of candidates who are only bean-counters and grant-proposers mistake it for the ends of politics.

Unlike some of his rivals in both parties, W. seems to understand the folly and futility of value-free politics. Other candidates may be far more adept at juggling figures and federal programs; he finds a way of getting to the human essence of a problem, and the human essence of the solution. He seems to understand that the object of a campaign is not to move political discourse to the left or to the right, but up.

W. has been straightening out both parties on education. Yes, test students, he said. Test them regularly, and test them nationally -- by clear, objective standards. Every year. From the third to the eighth grade. In reading and math. Most Americans, even those who have come to know and loathe the kind of federal education programs that never seem to educate, would agree. We need to know where our kids are in their education, and how well they're doing across the country.

At the same time, Americans are sick of targeted programs that always seem to miss the target. Most of us began to see through all this educanto about self-esteem and creative ignorance years ago, decades ago, as both grades and the currency were inflated. Lots of us still want to know why we have the most over-funded and under-achieving public schools in the industrialized world.

Well, here's a candidate who's tired of it, too, and who has been an education governor in Texas, pushing charter schools and achieving better test scores. He proposes that the federal government stop micro-managing and let states run their own schools -- if they set high standards and test their students. If test scores lag, money that now just keeps flowing to failing schools would be offered the parents instead. And they could use it to send their kids to the best schools they can find -- public or private. What's more, W. would advance some $300 million in federal funds to start or expand charter schools, and hold them to high standards.

"I don't want to tinker with the machinery of the federal role in education,'' says W. "I want to redefine that role entirely.'' It's about time. With all the great progress the American economy has made over the past two booming decades, our kids' basic education remains the black hole of American investment.

"Now we have a system of excessive regulation and no standards,'' says W. "In my administration, we will have minimal regulation and high standards.'' In short, accountability. The message to failing schools is simple: Use our money to educate our kids, or get out of the way and let somebody else do it: parents, charter schools, better public and private schools. But the kids should come first, not the bureaucracy, not the teachers unions, and not the educantists. That unholy alliance has done enough harm over the years.

Meanwhile, poor Al Gore is still tinkering with the federal role in education, still reeling off the names of the same old ineffective programs he'd keep expanding. Poor Al, he's a decent man who's been taken over by a sense of political calculation that never seems to stop ticking, audibly, transparently. That sound you hear behind his monotonous speeches is des-per-a-tion.

The vice president is still playing straight man. He sounds deathly afraid of any really new ideas that might actually improve education -- like school vouchers and charter schools. These decentralizing innovations in public education would give American families more purchasing power when it comes to their kids' education, and therefore more real choice and control, and give their kids more opportunity. But Poor Al's notion of a stunning new idea is to move his campaign headquarters back to Nashville.

No wonder W. is reaching the American people, even if he has to reach over the heads of the press and his own party to do it. So did Ike. But with each passing week, it becomes clearer what that W. stands for: Winner.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate