Aspirational Economics 101

The touchiest subject in American politics is supposed to be race, but it's really class--especially this year. Who wants to be a millionaire? Everyone. But who wants Donald Trump to get his wad back from the government before you get yours? No one. The candidates have to be mighty careful how they talk about money and social status. If George W. Bush gets tagged as the "Save the Rich First" candidate, he'll look clueless about the real lives of middle-class voters, and lose his argument for change. But if Al Gore looks like he wants to soak the rich, he'll soak himself. The corner bar nowadays has CNBC playing on the TV as much as sports, and nothing sounds tinnier than envy.

Here is where the campaign could get interesting. When it comes to middle-class aspirations, Bush is in tune on tone; Gore is in sync on substance. The candidate who manages to thread his thematic needle best on these longings and insecurities wins.

Beyond prosperity, the economic backdrop to this election is that the United States is rapidly resembling a Latin American republic. In 1976 the richest 1 percent held about 20 percent of the nation's net worth. Today, the 1 percenters hold about 40 percent of it. Even Ralph Nader couldn't reverse these trend lines, thanks to the nature of the New Economy. The question is whether we want wealth to concentrate even faster.

Bush and the GOP Congress do. To say that they favor the wealthy is not a left-wing opinion but a policy fact. Their tax cuts start from the premise that the people who pay the most in taxes should get the most tax relief, even if that provides a huge windfall for the wealthy. As the economy expands, this has a certain intuitive appeal, with freedom edging equality in the national hierarchy of democratic values. And Bush benefits from a kind of aspirational economics. Even if you're not worth $675,000 yet (the threshold where estate taxes currently kick in), you hope to be, and hope not to be considered "rich" when you get there. On the off chance that you design great new software or survive "Survivor," you wouldn't want to be punished for it.

Even so, Bush is clearly a little worried about the tilt of his plan. Because the benefits of his income tax cut are so skewed toward the prosperous--60 percent of the benefits go to those with more than $100,000 in household income; 27 percent to those making more than $350,000--Bush has steered his campaign to a larger idea. The GOP convention next week will be dedicated to the theme of "prosperity with a purpose," the point being, in the words of one Bush aide, "to do something good with it all." You won't hear how the elimination of the estate tax will cost charity $6 billion a year; you will hear about an expanded charitable tax deduction. And you'll get an earful about "inclusion."

This is smart politics and it dovetails nicely with the overall moral tone of the GOP campaign, which is to cleanse the country of Clinton. But the spiritual and nonmaterialist message is a smoke screen. For Republicans, the first "purpose" of prosperity is... more prosperity for the few. How can I be so sure of that? Because Congress passed the repeal of estate taxes before it did anything else this year. President Clinton will veto it (along with other tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy), but a new repeal would be passed and signed into law in the first month of a Bush presidency (just as Clinton signed long-pending family- and medical-leave bills shortly after he was inaugurated in 1993). It's Job One for the GOP.

So far, Gore's response to this has been weak. His tiresome mantra that Bush's tax cuts amount to a "risky scheme" has fallen flat; the economy is too strong for scare tactics. (If Ronald Reagan didn't frighten voters in 1980, Bush certainly won't this year.) And Gore's alliterative response to Bush--that "I'm for the people, and he's for the powerful"--is tone-deaf self-congratulation. Spare us, Al. Let the surrogates make the point.

But there's another "P" that holds great promise for Gore--"priorities." If Gore can convince middle-class voters that he'll help their health care, college tuition and retirement, he'll score on substance. That's what Gore's Texas foray was about last week--to shine a light on Bush's priorities there. In the fall debates (likely to be pivotal this year), Bush will say: let the people decide for themselves what they want to do with their money. Gore will say: fine, I'm for tax cuts, too--even raising the estate-tax exemption so that tax doesn't bite until you're really rich. But before we make Teddy Roosevelt turn over in his grave by eliminating it altogether, let's reward the middle-class first. Then Gore--and you can bet on this--will quote John McCain: "I like Bill Gates, but he doesn't deserve a huge tax cut before we pay down the national debt." That's common sense, not envy; class consciousness, not class war.

President Clinton once complained privately that the Chinese leaders "pocketed" concessions instead of "crediting" them. The same is true of American voters and the great economy. We live in a "What have you done for me lately?" culture, a factor that favors Bush. And by surrounding himself with people like Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, Bush is shrewdly running almost as the custodial candidate of the status quo, committed to restoring a lost world of grown-ups. But that also offers opportunities for Gore, who is far more comfortable as a scrappy challenger than as a conflicted incumbent. Whatever their angle, both candidates have their eyes firmly on the main prize--middle-class voters trying to move up a notch in life. En route to the White House, these voters are the keystone to the arch.