latimes.com: Bush, Gore are remapping their parties' traditional frontiers
WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- As the issue debate intensifies between Al Gore and George W. Bush, new twists are subtly reshaping old lines of division between the two parties.
Much of the argument is falling along familiar lines, with Bush accusing Gore of promoting "big government" and Gore accusing Bush of favoring tax cuts for the wealthy. But in other ways their conflict illuminates the effects of each man's efforts to rethink his party's traditional agenda.
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While Bush charges Gore with promoting too much spending, the vice president has actually moved to his rival's right on one key element of the fiscal debate: Gore has pledged to pay off the publicly held national debt by 2012--a promise Bush hasn't matched.
And even as Bush accuses Gore of siding with "the planners and the thinkers" in Washington, the Texas governor has proposed far more new spending than any Republican presidential nominee in years--and consistently sought to signal that he rejects the ideological opposition to government that came to define GOP congressional leaders.
Bush and Gore, in fact, share several common pillars for their domestic agendas. Both say the federal government, in pursuing its aims, should rely more on market forces, the states and providing "tools" to individuals. On issues from Social Security and Medicare to education, the critical difference is that Bush is willing to push further in devolving power from Washington while Gore is more sensitive to maintaining a national safety net that guarantees minimum benefits to all Americans.
The resulting contrasts may not approach the ideological chasms that separated earlier presidential rivals, such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan and Walter F. Mondale. But the differences in this campaign still point toward disparate visions of how Washington can promote prosperity and encourage reform in such core public priorities as health care, education and retirement programs.
Bush is steadily escalating his efforts to portray Gore as an old-style Democrat offering a traditional liberal agenda of more federal spending and regulation. "They stand on the side of big government," Bush declared at a rally in Westminster last week. "We stand on the side of America's families."
This sharpened ideological focus represents, in part, an acknowledgment by Bush's aides that questions of character and ethics alone won't be sufficient to erase Gore's lead in recent polls. But it also reflects their belief that voters will recoil from Gore's ideas--like his plan to provide prescription drugs for seniors--if they perceive them as meddlesome "command and control" directives from Washington.
Bush's new thrust creates intriguing political tests for both candidates. The challenge for Bush is to maintain his identity as "a different kind of Republican" while attacking Gore in the terms conservatives have long used to denounce Democrats.
Bush hopes to achieve this balance by insisting he does "not believe government is the enemy," as he put it in a speech Saturday to California Republicans. He will continue to argue that his agenda accepts a federal role in solving problems such as access to health care but offers solutions that "are more conservative and market-oriented," like tax credits for the uninsured.
But Democrats--and even some Republicans--believe those notes could be overwhelmed by Bush's broader crescendo attacking big government. "Instead of innovation, he's offering the old ideological critique of Democrats," says Will Marshall, director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.
Yet that critique still creates challenges for Gore. Much of the "new Democrat" agenda that President Clinton and Gore have pursued was designed to insulate their party precisely from the charge that it favors big government.
Bush cites substantial new spending by Gore
Bush's principal evidence in reviving that accusation is the substantial new spending Gore has proposed--just under $900 billion, by his own reckoning, over the next decade. And the GOP staff of the Senate Budget Committee contends that Gore underestimates the cost of his plans by anywhere from $27 billion to $900 billion, which could push the total new spending near $2 trillion.
Bush, by contrast, has proposed about $475 billion in new spending over the next decade, with the largest amounts devoted to education, the tax credit for the uninsured and prescription drugs for the elderly. Those are huge sums compared to recent GOP nominees but far less than Gore has proposed for those same priorities. The difference is that Bush has proposed an income tax cut that would cost at least $1.3 trillion over the next decade, while Gore is offering more targeted tax cuts of slightly less than $500 billion.
These contrasts allow Bush to frame the budget debate in familiar terms, presenting Gore as a big spender and himself as the candidate of limited government.
"The vice president will use prosperity to build the foundation of a permanently bigger, more intrusive government," says Bush aide Ari Fleischer.
But in some ways that frame doesn't fit the new picture. Gore has also pledged to keep the federal budget in balance every year. And he's promised to devote as much as $3 trillion of the federal budget surplus to paying off the national debt by 2012.
Bush doesn't devote nearly as much money toward debt reduction--and, as a result, doesn't pay it off until 2016 by his own calculations.
This contrast arguably moves Gore to Bush's right in the fiscal competition. The difficulty for Bush "is that it's not clear who is the fiscal conservative in this race," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.
Sharper differences are evident in the two men's approach to reforming basic public programs--Social Security, Medicare and public education.
On this front, too, the rivals start with some similar premises. Each insists public programs should demand "personal responsibility" from those it helps. And each maintains the best policies spur local initiative and the greater use of market forces to pursue public aims.
But Bush takes these ideas considerably further than Gore. The contrasts are sharpest on Social Security and Medicare. Arguing that the stock market will provide better returns over time, Bush wants to allow young workers to divert about one-sixth of their Social Security payroll taxes into individual accounts they could invest for their own retirement. In return they could face smaller guaranteed benefits.
Gore, by contrast, proposes tax credits that would allow workers to establish individual accounts as an "add-on" while maintaining the benefits promised under the current system.
Likewise, on Medicare, Bush has called for a fundamental restructuring. Under his plan, government would provide seniors a fixed sum of money each year to choose from a range of public and private insurance plans. The aim is to both save money and expand choice by increasing competition.
Gore embraces those goals but would move much more cautiously toward them with a plan to increase the freedom of private insurers to compete for Medicare patients but not structurally change the existing system.
Gore says Bush would shift risk to people
On both Social Security and Medicare, the two sides make common critiques of the other. Bush argues that Gore's plans would not sufficiently reform the programs and would thus demand either benefit cuts or vast transfers of general revenue in the future. Gore maintains that Bush's reforms would transfer risk from government to individuals; he warns that seniors could face financial shortfalls if the stock market falters, or inadequate health care if they can't afford the most comprehensive plans offered under Bush's Medicare approach.
In effect, Gore puts a greater priority on ensuring a minimum baseline benefit guaranteed to all even at the risk of constraining individual choice; Bush on maximizing individual choice even at the risk of producing unequal benefits.
The same pattern recurs on education, on which Bush supports vouchers that low-income parents in poorly performing public schools could use to send their children to private schools while Gore insists that federal dollars must remain focused on public schools.
This tension between security and choice may not be as emotional as the divisions that once separated Democrats and Republicans over issues like crime, welfare and defense. But they represent enduring fault lines that are likely to outlive this campaign--and shape the competition between the parties for years.