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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2000 / 10 Elul, 5760

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

Specifically, AlGore's detailed plan is meaningless -- AL GORE is ahead in the polls. Let's leave for another date a discussion of how dumb this makes some of my previous statements sound. Instead, let's take a look how he got here. Specifically, let's look at these things called "specifics."

We've heard a great deal about how shrewd Gore's convention kiss was, or how savvy he was to pick Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Give him credit, it's hard to argue with success. But there's another bit of Gore strategy that has gone underreported; Gore has brilliantly exploited the specifics gap.

"If you don't want specifics," he tells crowds on the stump, "now is the time to leave!" Whenever he talks about George W. Bush's proposals, Gore rails, "Where are the specifics? Where does the money come from?"

He says, "I'll give you the specifics before the election because I'm not afraid for you to know the facts of what Joe Lieberman and I are proposing." In his post-convention riverboat tour, Gore asked at every stop, "Do you want specifics in this election?" to cheers of "Yes!"

Again, no arguing with success - clearly the American people think they want specifics. But do they really? It certainly seems reasonable that specifics equal substance. The quickest way to find out if someone knows what they're talking about is to ask them for a "for instance" a la "You keep saying Captain Picard is cooler than Captain Kirk, gimme a for instance."

But when it comes to politics, there's always an example to back up your point. Two Washington policy wonks could argue for days, each endlessly quoting facts, without either side making any traction with the other. In fact, specifics are almost meaningless at this stage.

This week Gore released a 191-page economic plan. That's great. But there's no way it will happen. Oh, I don't mean his plan is bad, per se. Rather, any highly detailed plan this far out is pointless.

For example, Gore promises $2.388 trillion for the Social Security and debt relief "lock boxes." Putting aside the accounting trickery involved in the concept of putting money in a "lock box," that specific-sounding number is dependent on thousands of variables out of Gore's control, such as the number of retirees or whether Alan Greenspan stubs his toe or whether a President Gore would face a pliant Democratic Congress. Remember presidents must negotiate, not dictate.

Of course, the same things apply to Bush's specifics, too. All of his assumptions are little better than shots in the dark, also.

What voters really like is being treated as if they care about the specifics. No offense, but the idea that more than a few voters really care about the minutiae of either candidate's policies is laughable. And those who do care tend to be the most partisan.

I mean, whose vote is truly up for grabs depending on which candidate has a more detailed plan for Third World debt relief? Gore is winning the nickel-and-dime argument about prescription drugs because he is offering more "details," as if more details make a plan better or more likely.

Two-thirds of Americans couldn't name their congressman, according to a major 1996 survey by Harvard, The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Half of the respondents couldn't say whether Congress was being controlled by Democrats or Republicans or who the Speaker of the House was (and this was when Clinton was running against the "Gingrich Congress"). Seventy five percent of those polled didn't know that senators serve six-year terms, and half couldn't say what the Supreme Court does. But sure, these people are clamoring to know what is on page 182 of Al Gore's proposed budget.

Of course, the opposite of specifics - vague platitudes - aren't helpful, either. I am still waiting for Bush to explain what "leave no child behind" means - and why can't we at least leave behind the slow, annoying kids who keep saying, "Are we there yet?"

Still, the last thing America needs is a president who is more concerned with the details than the big picture. Jimmy Carter was so obsessed with details, he took it upon himself to dictate the schedules for the White House tennis courts. Ronald Reagan laid out a few clear policies - like win the Cold War, cut taxes - and let his staff do the work.

Gore and Bush differ on big issues, so of course they differ on small details. What I don't understand is why conventional wisdom holds that a more enlightened debate is on the small details rather than the big issues. Look at it this way, if you were looking to marry someone, would you rather know their general philosophy on parenting, or would you prefer to know what kind of bike they'd get their son for his eighth birthday?

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