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Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2000 /12 Shevat, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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The era of Big Promises --
DES MOINES–What do Democrats want? Listen to Al Gore speaking in a theater-in-the-round to a carefully selected group of mostly undecided voters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last week. Responding to a question on global warming, Gore concluded, "Imagine saying to your children, 'You don't have to worry about drastic weather changes.' " New Dealers were accused of promising pie in the sky. Gore is promising good weather.

Perhaps Gore was just being playful. But both he and his Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, are making big promises, calling for a fatter, more active federal government in a way no Democratic presidential candidate has since 1988. Neither is campaigning as a "new Democrat," as Bill Clinton did in 1992 and 1996. "The era of big government is over," Clinton proclaimed in January 1996. Today's Democratic candidates, and presumably Democratic interest groups and voters, want to bring it back.

Bradley has proposed a program to pay for health insurance for low-income families and subsidize it for those with middle incomes. Gore argues this would eat up the budget surplus. He has his own plan– to provide insurance for all children, which he portrays as a step toward a more ambitious goal: "It's time to go down the road to national health insurance." Gore also calls for "revolutionary change in the public schools," though his revolution is craftily designed to avoid unduly irritating teachers' unions, which are among the largest delegations to the Democratic National Convention. Eliminating child poverty is on Bradley's short list of big goals. Gore, not to be outdone, modestly promises to "fight against every threat to the welfare of the American people."

Blue skies ahead. Behind this expansiveness is a confidence that, after seven years of economic growth and with a federal budget surplus, this is a time of expanded possibilities. "Productivity is growing at 2.75 percent a year. If that continues, the economy could be almost one-third larger in 10 years. We must make sure everyone gets to higher economic ground," Bradley told an overflow crowd of 150 in Ankeny. "You should be fixing your roof when the sun is shining." Gore, stickler that he is for details, insists that "keeping the budget balanced is good for progressive causes," and routinely attacks Republicans' "risky tax schemes" and Bradley's health care program for "blow[ing] the surplus." Neither Bradley nor Gore gives even the passing consideration George W. Bush does to the possibility that growth and budget surpluses may not go on forever.

Nor, when pinned down on Meet the Press last month, did either support any significant changes in Social Security, as the Democratic Leadership Council and centrist Democratic Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bob Kerrey, and John Breaux have done. Yet the rosy surplus projections five or 10 years out are far softer than the deficit projections for Social Security starting in 2017. Social Security revenues depend on the size of the work force, which is easier to predict than economic growth; Social Security spending depends on the size of the elderly population, which can be predicted with a very small margin of error for the next 25 years.

What happens in the likely event that there's a recession in the next decade or in the near-certain event that Social Security spending exceeds Social Security revenues in the decade after? Government's share of the gross domestic product will rise, and the federal budget will spiral toward deficit. Spending will either have to be cut or taxes raised. Democrats are likely to favor tax increases, as they did relentlessly in the deficit years from 1982 to 1993; in December both Bradley and Gore refused to rule them out. Yet taxes as a share of the total economy are already at the highest level in American history. Any increase will move government's share of the economy up toward what it is today in Europe, which has sluggish economic growth, zero new jobs, and 10 percent-plus unemployment.

The Washington conventional wisdom is that Republican candidates' promises of tax cuts are a political liability, and surely many voters are skeptical about them. But if the choice is between Republicans who promise to cut taxes (and seem likely to hold them even) and Democrats who promise to hold them even (but seem willing to raise them), the issue may work for Republicans, as it did in the 1980s.

Conspicuously absent from the campaign dialogue are the words "Bill Clinton." In Cedar Rapids, one questioner asked Gore about the president because "I'm concerned that your ability to win the election is reduced by your association with the Clinton scandals." No mention was made of Clinton's policies or his "third way" approach. Many Democrats support Bradley because, as Ryan McClure put it in Ankeny, "with Clinton's stuff, he would be a new beginning." Clinton's job approval may be high, but Democrats–candidates and voters– seem to be moving away from more than just his personal problems these days. The question is whether this is the wave of the future–or just a passing phase.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©1999, Michael Barone