YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

September Surprise

A kiss and a vulgarity are suddenly overshadowed by issues in the presidential campaign. Credit the budget surplus.

September 10, 2000|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — This was supposed to be an issueless election, remember? It was supposed to be about personality and character.

Maybe, if things got really nasty, it would be like 1988. That was when another vice president, George Bush, was running against another governor, Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts. The big issues that year were criminal furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the death penalty and school prayer. Oh, yes, and Dukakis making a fool of himself by taking a ride in a tank.

For a minute there, it looked like the same thing could happen this year. After three weeks of campaigning, what's the most vivid image voters have of Vice President Al Gore? The kiss. And Texas Gov. George W. Bush's defining moment? When he called a reporter a "major league a - - - - - -." But there's still hope. Just look at what happened last week. On Tuesday, we got a big issue speech from Bush on Medicare. On Wednesday, we got a big issue speech from Gore on the economy. How did substance get in here?

The conventional wisdom about this election is that both candidates are rushing to the center, trying to minimize their issue differences. Here's Bush on Tuesday, sounding like a Democrat: "My party has often pointed out the limits and flaws of the Great Society. But there were successes as well. Medicare is one of them." Lyndon Johnson Bush? Here's Gore on Wednesday, sounding like a Republican: "Let's reduce the national debt, year after year, every single year, until it is completely eliminated by the year 2012." Calvin Coolidge Gore?

But powerful forces are pushing Bush and Gore apart. In fact, the two candidates are offering dramatically different paradigms, or models, for governing. For Bush, the paradigm is competition. Take Medicare. Bush told voters in Scranton, Pa., on Tuesday, "We trust you to make decisions for your families. You can choose a basic health-care plan that meets your needs, or you can choose a little more of a 'Cadillac plan' for your needs. Nothing like a little competition to create excellence in the system."

Or take Social Security. "It's time to have new leadership in Washington," Bush said in Illinois on Monday, "leadership that says to seniors, 'The promise of Social Security will be met,' new thinking that trusts younger workers to manage some of their own hard-earned money."

For Bush, more competition means fewer government controls. "By making Washington the nation's pharmacist, the Gore plan puts us well on our way to price controls for drugs," Bush charged.

More competition, more risk-taking, less government--that's a paradigm that appeals to men. Sure enough, men are voting for Bush by an 18-point margin, according to the Gallup poll.

Gore's paradigm is the safety net. He wants to secure it. "First, let's make Social Security financially sound into the second half of this new century and make Medicare financially sound for at least another 30 years," he said in Cleveland on Wednesday.

Gore also wants to extend the safety net. His economic plan calls for "the lowest level of poverty in recorded history," "double the number of families with savings over $50,000," home ownership for seven out of 10 Americans, 10 million new "high-tech, high-skill jobs" and "three-quarters of all high-school graduates attending college and half going on to graduate."

Plus, Gore wants to put aside $300 billion, just to be safe. In Cleveland, he pledged to "set aside some money for a rainy day, to be absolutely certain we never spend money we don't have."

Gore promotes the traditional Democratic view that government is there to help people. He said on Wednesday, "I'm fighting for a full range of targeted tax cuts for middle-class families, to help you save for college and retirement, to pay for health insurance and child care." Bush promotes the traditional Republican view that government interferes with people. "My opponent talks about targeted tax cuts. He believes government ought to be picking and choosing," Bush said.

A bigger safety net, less risk, more government protection--that's a paradigm that appeals to women. Sure enough, women favor Gore by 24 points.

The gender gap has been around since 1980, but we've never seen anything like this: competing landslides. A landslide for Bush among men. A landslide for Gore among women.

Amazingly, this campaign is turning out to be a big debate on fundamental issues. Why is it happening this year? There's no big crisis. But there is a big surplus. Trillions of dollars. When you've got big money, you have to make big choices. Like the choice between public and private investment--the central issue in this election. Bush wants to give most of the surplus back to taxpayers, so they can invest it in their own futures. Gore wants the government to invest most of the surplus to provide for public needs. That's about as basic a choice as you can get in politics.

Los Angeles Times Articles