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Jewish World Review June 21, 2000 / 18 Sivan, 5760

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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Consumer Reports

Gore and the Goodies -- IT'S EASY TO MOCK Al Gore (now, there's a truism) for his sudden embrace of big tax cuts and for his likewise abrupt passion for allowing workers to augment their Social Security pensions by investing tax dollars in the stock market, two ideas that George W. Bush has been trumpeting and that, until now, Gore has been screechily denouncing as too, too terribly risky.

And of course Gore should be mocked. There is something genuinely funny in seeing him take time off from his simultaneously shrill and pompous attacks on Bush's proposal to cut income taxes by $1.3 trillion over 10 years as an irresponsible abdication of governmental stewardship--in order to present his own $500 billion, 10-year tax cut as a splendid example of governmental stewardship. Gore campaign spokesman Douglas Hattaway says his man's half-trillion election-year candy toss is "a responsible tax cut," while Bush's trillion-dollar baby is "a giant tax giveaway." Where is the magic point where a tax cut goes from one to the other--$600 billion? $900 billion? If Bush had brought in his scheme at, say, $700 billion, only $200 billion more than Gore's, would it too be "a responsible tax cut"? What if Bush had proposed exactly the same figure as Gore? Would both plans be responsible tax cuts, or would they both be giant tax giveaways? It's so confusing.

The Bush campaign crew is enjoying the opportunity for fun provided by Gore's latest policy retooling. It should savor these laughs, for it is less likely to enjoy the last ones. Putting mockery aside (although I do hate to do that), Gore has done a smart thing here, setting himself up for the sort of campaigning at which he is best.

Gore is a master at what might be called grab-and-smash politics. He grabs hold of the most popular aspects of an idea that is also supported by his opponent. But then he takes a different approach--and smashes his opponent on the distance between them. This tactic allows Gore to give full play to his great strengths in the areas of distortion and demagoguery. Gore excels at presenting himself as the candidate who promises the most in fresh governmental goodies, while casting his opponent in the role of electoral monster: someone who would take our existing goodies away. This is what Gore did to Bill Bradley in the Democratic primaries, by relentlessly repeating the false claim that Bradley, if elected, would eliminate the Medicaid program and replace it with a $150-per-month voucher that wouldn't cover many families' needs (hurting blacks and Hispanics most, Gore would piously note). Now Gore is in a position to do unto Bush as he did unto Bradley.

Until this week's repositioning, Bush was enjoying the goodies high-ground. With his across-the-board tax cut proposal and his plan to allow workers to use part of their payroll taxes to create private investment accounts, he stood as the candidate most like Santa. Now Gore stands with him, competing for the gimme-vote. But Gore also stands apart from Bush. The differences between their approaches to both tax cuts and Social Security are substantial and are rooted in basic governing philosophy.

Bush's is a conservative approach; he would tinker with the (liberal) foundations of Social Security, and he would offer everyone the benefit (and risk) of market investment. Gore's approach is classically liberal; he would maintain existing Social Security benefits but allow workers--not all workers, only those couples who earn less than $100,000 per year--to create their own private pension plans as well. These accounts would be funded largely with tax dollars, in the form of government matching funds that would, for the least wealthy recipients, amount to $3 for every $1 invested.

Similarly, Bush's conservative tax-cut plan would give relief to everyone, including the wealthy; Gore's liberal approach would target a series of specific cuts at middle-class families, while denying cuts for wealthier voters, who would in essence foot the goodies bill. Both plans are classic election-year bribes, but which is likely to be more popular? It depends on who can better frighten the voters.

Bush can attack Gore's Social Security and tax-cut plans as liberal wealth-redistribution schemes, which they are, but this might not be effective. Middle-class voters object to schemes that redistribute wealth from them to the poor, not from the rich to them. Gore will meanwhile seek to convince voters--especially crucial older voters--that Bush is the candidate of taking goodies away. Since Gore's Social Security plan guarantees maintenance of existing benefits (without, of course, addressing the generational shortfall that any meaningful reform must), and Bush's does not, this should be a fairly easy sell. And nobody is better at selling fear than Al Gore.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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