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Democrat or Republican: A high-stakes contest?

By George Sumner - posted Sunday, 15 October 2000

In less than a month we’ll know who will lead the world’s dominant power for the next four years. But many uncertainties remain between then and now. The race is tight and still it is unclear whether the White House will be occupied by a Democrat or Republican. With the stakes so high you may think the media would closely scrutinize the policy details and visions offered by the candidates.

Well, not if you picked up the New York Post after the first presidential debate. The paper’s front page carried the anti-Gore headline ‘Liar, Liar’. What terrible deed had the paper uncovered? Another Watergate? A blatantly misleading promise? Not quite. In the debate the VP gave anecdotal accounts to support his version of the country’s priorities. He spoke of a 15-year-old from Florida who had to stand during class due to a shortage of desks. The crack teams of journalists quickly honed in on the school only to find the girl had stood for only one day. Then came the Vice President’s story of inspecting fire and flood damage with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Texas. It turned out that the FEMA Director had not accompanied Gore on the specific date referred to. Again, hardly an earthshaking distortion of the truth.

What is the significance of this? Apparently, if Gore can’t be trusted to get every detail of every anecdote perfect, how can he be trusted at all? Compelling eh? Even former President Bush pointed out a few weeks ago that a union commercial jingle the Vice President told a group of union members he liked to listen to as a child had not been written until Gore was an adult. Thank god the elder statesman came out of retirement to comment on such a serious and weighty matter.


The only lesson to be learned from Gore’s experience is simply don’t tell anecdotes – they get in the way of the message. But do the alleged inaccuracies reduce the problem of school overcrowding, or does the absence of the FEMA director make him any less concerned about flooding or fires?

If you listened to one of my more bitter and twisted friends (an Aussie), the reason the media is obsessed by this trivia is that there is nothing better for them to talk about. The complaint is that both candidates sound the same. Both promise to do similar things: to save Social Security and Medicare; to provide cheaper prescription drugs for seniors; to sign a patients bill of rights into law; to protect the environment; to ensure every child gets a quality education. When the two stood side by side in the first debates, both were dressed identically. So why should anyone really care?

The truth is that if you scratch the surface of the rhetoric then you find some deep ideological differences. Take Social Security, the federal retirement program. At the moment with the baby boomers still working with peak salaries, more money is being paid into the system than is being taken out. Obviously once the boomer generation retires, the program will have more people drawing benefits than putting money in. After some thought, the finest economic minds in the U.S. concluded that this may cause a problem in future years. Which brings us to the campaign issue, with both sides promising to save Social Security.

The Vice President takes the view that the additional money currently going into the system should be put aside in order to meet the bigger demands in future years. Bush on the other hand favors allowing workers to take one sixth of their Social Security taxes and invest them in individual stock market accounts.

The Gore model on the one hand will keep the system in its existing form, with the government managing the money and providing for guaranteed benefits. The Bush scheme transfers control of the money (and some risk) to the individual and allows it to be invested in the private sector. The difference amounts to an ideological choice between a privatized or state-run retirement system. So behind the promise to save Social Security for future generations lies an old debate over the role of government in managing social programs.

Prescription drugs are an issue of crucial importance to seniors. The costs of prescription drugs is increasing far beyond the rates of inflation, with many people lacking the health insurance to cover the cost. Seniors are a voting bloc of increasing importance to politicians. They are increasing in number, turn out to vote more frequently and spend more money than any other group on prescription drugs. Thus the issue scores high in the polls.


Both sides promise to see that all seniors will get affordable prescription drugs, so what is the problem? Look at the way they do it. The Republican plan gives subsidies to the insurance companies hoping to entice them to provide a more affordable drug option. The Democrats on the other hand plan to set up their own state-run drug benefits under Medicare. The issue is the same: should the private sector be left to take care of the problem or should the government administer its own scheme.

Then there is the issue of tax cuts. George W. Bush proposes a $1.3 trillion tax cut, that, Al Gore will tell you, is heavily weighted to the top 5% of earners. The Gore plan would offer up to $500 billion in ‘targeted’ tax cuts – the difference is that the cuts would be targeted to help families pay for college education, or long-term care, for example. The way the debate has been framed by Gore is one of wealth distribution and changing tax policy to encourage the fulfilment of social priorities. The Bush approach has been to argue that the government takes too much of your money, hence the surpluses, and that across-the-board tax cuts are only fair.

These are just a selection and very brief look at some of the differences between the candidates. While framed in a way that sounds like differences in administration – with both agreeing on the end goal but taking a different route – the policies highlight an ideological divide. The division on questions of the role of the government, the private sector and collective responsibility would not be out of place in any of the post-war elections.

If so many differences exist why do they sound so alike? Part of it is the limited amount of time each candidate has to put forward their message. A primary way voters get their information is through TV ads that last 30 seconds, or maybe a mentally exhausting minute. A further factor is the nature of the news coverage that reaches a mass audience, catching only the main soundbites and buzz words. Such coverage means that no longer can candidates rely on the fiery oratory of previous years. As a result, I spent a large part of the campaign knowing that Bush’s education policy was a commitment to ‘better education’, but little more.

Political debate now is message-driven, focusing on the core phrases that have been carefully tested and crafted to the concerns of the voters. Hence both sides say they will strengthen Social Security – just that you need to read further to find they would do so in radically different ways. Then there is issue neutralization. For the reasons mentioned above, prescription drugs is a key concern for a large voting bloc. However, on issues of health the Democrats have traditionally done better in the voters’ minds. So earlier in the campaign, a leaked memo from the GOP showed that managers were telling their candidates to talk about the issue with phrases similar to those used by the Democrats. Basically, if your opponent has an advantage over you on a key issue, don’t use rhetoric to move voters’ minds, use it to convince them that you share their existing opinion – become a political drag queen and do the best impersonation possible.

While the marketing techniques may breed cynicism, the argument here is that the cynicism is misplaced. The issues here are not just those of overall competence, but go to the fundamental principles of how we organize society. And the result is not just important over here, the choices made on November 7 will have implications across the globe. I don’t just mean in terms of foreign policy. The U.S. has set the trends in ideology, like the rise of Reaganomics, or the world-wide ripple of center-left governments following Clinton. So while it may seem like theater and trivia at first glance, don’t underestimate the importance of this election.

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About the Author

George Sumner is a Lawyer based in London.

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