A Hamiltonian Moment Again?

On Aug. 28 Joseph Lieberman said: "Isn't Medicare coverage of prescription drugs really about the values of the Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and mother?" On Sept. 5 George W. Bush said: "By history and by choice, our nation makes a promise: We will honor our fathers and mothers by providing quality health insurance to every senior citizen." The battle is joined.

At times it seems to be largely a battle between reactionary liberalism and reactive conservatism. Such liberalism circles the wagons to defend existing government programs from challenges (e.g., public education against school-choice voucher programs) or even modest revision (e.g., partial privatization of Social Security). Such conservatism contents itself with moderating enrichments of the entitlement menu (e.g., prescription drugs under Medicare), nibbling at the edges of government's failures (e.g., Bush's halfhearted school-choice proposal) and sticking with failures even as evidence against them accumulates (e.g., bilingual education).

However, the campaign, which for a while seemed destined to be unusually vacuous, turning on Al Gore's woodenness or Bush's smirk, has become uncommonly rich in complex issues, from Social Security to ballistic-missile defenses. The winner will be able to claim a robust mandate. And if the winner is Gore, conservatism's core proposition will have been rejected with unmistakable clarity.

That proposition is that government is too large and inefficient. Gore's wager is that while Americans continue to talk like Jeffersonians, praising small government, their rhetoric has been rendered anachronistic by the budget surplus, and the forecast of 10 years of sunny economic weather. This, Gore evidently believes, has produced the most Hamiltonian moment since the Great Society.

Although conservatives' winter of discontent has begun before summer has ended, they should cut Bush some slack, considering the political needle he is trying to thread. There is more parity between the parties than at any time in modern memory. Most Republicans and Democrats have rallied to their parties' tickets. The voters still up for grabs include a lot who are blown hither and yon by events like Gore's hormonal kiss of Tipper. Such voters are easily frightened and averse to conflict. With this target population in mind, Bush avoids sharpening differences of principle.

Granted, it sometimes seems that trying to interest Bush in a question of principle is akin to trying to describe Bach to someone deaf. When John McCain was promoting campaign-finance reforms that would establish speech rationing by government, raising grave First Amendment issues, Bush opposed the plan because... it would disadvantage Republicans. Good grief. Recently the Clinton administration was contemplating banning the Boy Scouts from using public lands because the Scouts exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of association (recently affirmed by the Supreme Court) to bar avowed homosexuals as Scout leaders. What was Bush's response to this (before the administration beat a hasty--but probably temporary--retreat) attempt to break yet another institution to the saddle of state orthodoxy? He said: Banning the Scouts would be wrong because... the Scouts have done good works for government. Good grief cubed.

However, regarding debates, Bush is principled and right, on two counts. First, it is high time someone stopped the Commission on Presidential Debates from treating this facet of public life as its private property. Candidates with different needs and aptitudes should be free to negotiate all matters of time, place and, especially, format. Second, the 1996 format--90-second answers to questions, followed by 60-second rebuttals, then 30-second responses--was infantile. (In the frequently praised but rarely read Lincoln-Douglas debates, one man made a 60-minute opening speech, the other a 90-minute response, followed by a 30-minute rejoinder.) The 1996 format produced less a debate than a slightly adversarial press conference. It is nonsensical to regard that format as more serious and demanding than a less structured grilling by Tim Russert.

Last Thursday CongressDailyAM, published by National Journal, reported: "House Republicans are planning to shift their emphasis from tax cuts to debt reduction in the coming weeks, in an effort to squelch Vice President Gore's attempt to portray Democrats as the more fiscally responsible party." This is, in part, making a virtue of necessity. On Thursday the House sustained President Clinton's veto of the abolition of the estate tax, demonstrating that, for now, tax cuts are impossible. So debt retirement is the most conservative option. But it also is the position Gore has taken as an alternative to a large tax cut, and the public seems to like the idea.

Bush will succeed or fail on one clearly conservative theme: Gore says Bush's tax cut of $1.3 trillion over 10 years puts prosperity at risk, yet Gore's promises would increase spending of at least twice that much over the same span. Because a small economic slowdown can cause a huge reduction of the surplus, such spending, Bush must argue, is apt to cause long-term interest rates to rise, further slowing the economy.

Looking for a leading indicator of Bush's fate? If the St. Louis Cardinals play deep into the postseason, people there may not watch political goings-on, but Missouri bears watching. Even more than its neighbor, Illinois, which voted with the winner in all but two 20th-century presidential elections, Missouri is a bellwether, having missed the winner only once (1956). Bush, according to the Mason-Dixon poll, has gone from a 48-to-37 lead in the state in July to a 45-41 deficit in September, a 15-point swing.

The Show Me State may show whether, just six years after the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, the nation is ready for what Gore promises--the boldest expansion of the federal government in 35 years. Gore may feel that his hour has come because this year's two most important issues, health care and education, were firmly imbedded in the federal government by Medicare and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, both born in 1965.