By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Indeed, as columnist Matt Miller has pointed out, the Bradley plan is basically "a slightly cheaper version of the proposal offered by President George Bush in 1992" -- a proposal the Democrats dismissed at the time as insufficient, since it would have covered only 96 percent of the American public. Bush's plan, as Miller notes, was proposed in the face of record deficits. And yet Elaine Kamarck, Gore's senior policy adviser, has decried the Bradley plan as evidence of a "reckless spending mentality," though it's proposed in a time of considerable surpluses.
To be sure, Bradley, like all the presidential candidates in both parties, is assuming the basic validity of the economic projections pointing to a string of budget surpluses. But he isn't relying on those entirely, since two of his policy initiatives entail major savings. Unlike Gore, who favors increases in military spending totaling $127 billion over the next decade, Bradley supports holding Pentagon appropriations at their current level. "I don't see how we can make cuts, given the need to increase pay and benefits for a large number of people in the military," he told me last October. "But I think we can have a steady state in military spending." Bradley has also called for closing tax loopholes, especially for mining, oil and gas companies, a move that would net an additional $125 billion over the next decade.
A sizable irony in all this is that Gore is proposing big-ticket items of his own. He wants to spend nearly $11 billion a year to establish universal preschools for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and has set aside $374 billion over the next decade to shore up Medicare (not to mention the $127 billion in additional military spending). But he is also earmarking some of the surplus for debt retirement, and he consistently assails Bradley's health proposal as Exhibit A in his case against renewed -- make that "reckless" -- public investment.
III. GET WITH THE PROGRAM!
GORE IS NO STRANGER TO THE INVESTMENT-VS.-deficit-retirement debate. As Bob Woodward tells the tale in The Agenda, his account of Clinton's first year as president, Clinton himself was distinctly reluctant to abandon his campaign promises to boost public-sector spending on schools, roads and the like. In the end, his budget tilted decisively toward reducing the deficit, but even as the congressional vote loomed, Clinton was still privately complaining that it was a "Wall Street plan." With the vote just a couple of days off, he subjected Gore to his misgivings, then asked him what he could do. "You can get with the goddamn program!" Gore replied.
To a considerable extent, surely, Gore's attacks on Bradley's advocacy of new public programs is a matter of political positioning. Indeed, his attacks have been mutually contradictory. Within the space of a few days, Gore has attacked Bradley for aiming too high, and for shunning a necessary incrementalism ("I want to achieve universal coverage step by step," he's said), then turned around and blamed Bradley for saying government should concentrate on just a few big things (contrasting him to "leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, leaders who did not believe that America could only do one or two things").
But there is more to Gore's campaign than simple intellectual incoherence. Though his own policy initiatives may seem to contradict it, there is a program at the core of the Gore candidacy, or at least a record of prosperity that he, alone of all the candidates, can claim some attachment to, if not quite credit for. For if any action of the Clinton-Gore administration fostered that prosperity, it was the tax hike and deficit reduction of the '93 Clinton budget -- the goddamn program Gore fought for, and now takes credit for.
Now, however -- and without further incentive, save that it differentiates him all the more from Bradley, Bush and McCain -- Gore has gone a step further and become the advocate of debt retirement über alles. In an astonishing interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, Gore called for keeping the budget in the black even during an economic downturn. Spending should be cut as the economy slows, he said, "just as a corporation has to cut expenses if revenues fall off . . . [A recession] should be viewed as an opportunity to push that change [eliminating governmental middle managers] further before any other options are considered."
This is a mind-boggling position, and not just for a Democrat. It runs counter to every lesson of the Great Depression, where governmental cutbacks only further reduced consumer buying power, deepening theã recession even more. "You're going to do that in a deep recession?" Bradley asked, upon hearing Gore's position. "That will only make things worse." Even John McCain was taken aback by Gore's stance. "One of the options to stimulate the economy is to make investments," he told the Journal, "and that may entail deficit spending."
On the whole, union economists and policy people have been studiously avoiding Gore's policy pronouncements, for fear that they'd come out privately favoring Bradley while their unions are supporting Gore. One such union brain-truster whom I forced to read Gore's fiscal meditations, though, was left sputtering. "I don't think there's been a recession in the past hundred years where liberals and centrists didn't see the proper role of government being to prop up demand to forestall a deeper downturn," he says. "Hoover did it before Roosevelt, before Keynes provided a theoretical rationale for it." (Hoover, one might note, did it over the opposition of his treasury secretary, banking scion Andrew Mellon, who thought the proper role of employers, both private and governmental, was to cut back both purchasing and employment to get through the bad times. Gore is on the verge of becoming an Andrew Mellon Democrat -- the first of the breed, though Gray Davis is breathing right down his neck.) To be sure, all these attacks that Gore and his fugelmen are waging against large-scale public investment are campaign-season overstatements. At the same time, though, they mark a further, and dangerous, shift to the right in fundamental Democratic ideology. (Which already, of course, has shifted well rightward: A new survey shows that the Clinton-Gore administration is the first of the post World War II era in which per capita federal spending has actually declined.)