Talk about moral confusion.
In Los Angeles last week, Bob Dole derided Hollywood and President Clinton for not banging the gong more loudly against drug abuse. The president, Dole declared, had demonstrated "moral confusion" when he made light on MTV four years ago of his youthful experimentation with marijuana, rather than urging his listeners not to light up themselves.
Fair enough. But what about Dole's own moral confusion? Only a few hours after demanding moral messaging in Los Angeles, Dole flew to Las Vegas for a campaign rally and fund-raiser in a gambling casino. What kind of message does that send at a time when the explosive spread of state-sponsored gambling is leaving its mark in crime, family dysfunction and addiction--especially among the same young people whose rising drug use Dole laments?
"It's just incredible," said Bernie Horn, political director for the Washington-based National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "He doesn't seem to see any of the anti-family significance of casino gambling. He acts like he's going to a bowling alley."
Not that Clinton is much better. To his credit, he has launched a major offensive to discourage young people from smoking. But even though recent estimates suggest that the percentage of teenagers who display at least some problem with excessive gambling is roughly comparable to the share who smoke (about one-fifth in both cases), Clinton has somehow lost his voice about the risks to young people from the spread of gambling.
Though Clinton signed recent legislation that anti-gambling forces pushed through Congress to create a national commission to study the industry during the next two years, the president did nothing to help the bill when it bogged down in the Senate. Nor did Dole raise a finger, though he formally supported the commission too.
For Clinton and Dole, money may be blocking their view: Though Dole has raised more money from gambling interests than has Clinton, other Democratic campaign committees have collected more than the GOP from casinos in this election, according to an analysis by the Campaign Study Group, an independent campaign research organization.
More charitably, Dole's and Clinton's silence may reflect a lack of awareness: Only as gambling has spread beyond its Las Vegas beachhead have its risks become so clear.
Even without leadership from the top, this mounting pile of evidence is helping a diverse grass-roots alliance slow the dice man's advance--a march that appeared irresistible only a few years ago. Opponents are on a roll in defeating state ballot initiatives meant to authorize yet more gambling. But six more fights are on the card for this fall, and once again the two sides are lacing up their gloves.
Like drugs and prostitution, gambling has always been with us, and it's not going to disappear. The question isn't prohibition but whether government should actively encourage its citizens to plow their paychecks into wagers that are, by definition, likely to lose.
During the past two decades, state after state has turned to gambling as a silver-bullet solution to fraying local economies and sagging tax revenues. Twenty years ago, only Nevada permitted commercial casinos and just 13 states had lotteries. Today, 37 states conduct lotteries. Twenty-three states allow some form of casino gambling, such as riverboat or Indian reservation gaming houses, with full-fledged casino strips operating in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, N.J., and along Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
These magnets have had the desired effect of sucking coins out of people's pockets. Twenty years ago, Americans wagered about $17 billion on legal gambling; in 1995, the figure was a breathtaking $550 billion. Some of that comes from high rollers in black tie and Armani who can afford their thrills; but the football-sized casino floors in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are filled mostly with people in short sleeves who live paycheck to paycheck--or from Social Security check to check.
"The people in there are not wealthy," said Wendy Holibaugh, a Christian Coalition activist from Westchester County in New York who turned out for a session on gambling at the group's recent national convention. "So where's that money coming from? That's the rent check; it's the next refrigerator; it's the kid's tuition."
For politicians, gambling has often seemed a kind of perpetual-motion machine, a cost-free way to fund vital services. But it has become increasingly clear that gambling imposes its own hidden costs. "People in office don't have the courage to raise taxes or cut programs, so they bring in an operation to prey on their own people," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who led the fight to create the federal gambling commission.