In The Endgame, Bush, Gore Frame Race

Posted: October 22, 2000

The endgame has begun and, like everything else about Campaign 2000, it will take a while. This year, Election Day comes as late as it possibly can.

For each of the two major candidates, this is the time to find the right voice. To keep the argument simple, and give it sweep. To frame the race to his own advantage.

And both men know exactly how they'd like to do it.

George W. Bush wants to place the focus squarely on the role of government, with himself as the proponent of what's newer and smaller, his opponent the advocate of what's old, discredited and bureaucratic.

"There is a difference of opinion," Bush said in his closing statement during the final debate. "It's the difference between big, federal government and somebody who's coming from outside of Washington who will trust individuals."

Al Gore wants the choice on Nov. 7 to be seen as a referendum on prosperity, with himself as the proven protector of the good times and Bush as the worrisome threat.

"It wasn't easy to get here," the vice president said Thursday at Columbia University in New York, referring to the nation's economic health. "And I don't believe our future prosperity is preordained. I don't believe we can take liberties with it, or take it for granted. Our families have worked too hard, and come too far, to throw it all away."

Neither man is a perfect vehicle for the argument he's making.

Rhetoric aside, Bush isn't actually calling for a smaller government. Not in terms of what conservative Republicans envisioned in years past. Not compared with the status quo, either. Only compared with what Gore proposes.

There is no significant federal program that Bush wants to kill, although his 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut certainly would reduce the money available for future government spending. There are, in fact, some domestic programs related to health care, education and social services that he wants to expand.

Until this year, the GOP was on record as calling for the dismantling of the Department of Education, among others. But Bush would enhance the department's powers.

He would charge the agency with making sure that states comply with his new, federal mandates for accountability and testing. In some cases, the department would have the power to give federal aid directly to impoverished families with children stuck in failing public schools.

Bush wants to reform programs rather than eliminate them, doing so in a way that creates an enhanced role for the private sector and greater options for people. That's where the theme of "trusting the individual" is played out. It is most apparent in his proposals to give recipients more options under Medicare and to partially privatize Social Security through personal retirement accounts.

Gore, who had been portraying himself for months as a populist, is now stressing his credentials as a responsible economic steward while depicting Bush as a risky option for suddenly uncertain economic times.

In pursuing this course, the Democrat is taking a risk of his own, although he may have no alternative. He is gambling that voters will give him something they may not want to and maybe shouldn't - namely, credit for the nation's prosperity.

Throughout the history of American politics, the electorate has been more inclined to punish those in power for a weak economy than to reward them for a strong one. This tendency has been reinforced in recent years by a growing sense that Washington now has less impact on the economy than in the past, due to the impact of technological innovation and global market forces.

And those voters who might be inclined to give Washington credit understand that Bill Clinton, Alan Greenspan and Newt Gingrich had much more to do with the eight-year boom than the vice president.

The two disparate ways of framing the race - Bush on the role of government, Gore on the fragility of prosperity - come most directly into conflict on two key issues.

One is tax policy. Bush sees his across-the-board tax cut as an affirmation of his trust in the individual and as insurance against an economic downturn; Gore sees it threatening fiscal sanity and preventing the federal government from making what he sees as needed expenditures in education and health care.

The other issue is Social Security, where the battle is now being waged with great ferocity. Here again, the focus is primarily on what the Texas governor is saying.

There is much to like about Bush's proposal for personal savings accounts, letting people control of some of their Social Security money, letting them own it and pass it along to their children. He says that he is proud to have put it forward, that it exemplifies his idea of the proper relationship between government and individual.

But Bush has been so vague about how it would work and how he would make it work financially that he has opened himself up to attack by Gore, even though Gore's own Social Security proposal doesn't solve the system's long-term financial problems.

Democrats have won a lot of elections by scaring the elderly on Social Security, and they're trying to do it again.

Gore's new charge that Bush has promised the same $1 trillion over the next 10 years both to set up personal accounts and to pay benefits - a charge based on a worst-case scenario - is hard for Republicans to refute when they can't offer hard numbers of their own.

The Social Security debate, and the competing ways to frame the broader choice, won't decide the outcome by themselves. Most voters have long since made up their minds, and many of the undecided are likely looking more at personality and competence.

But in this election, as with any other, he who controls the question has a decent chance of getting the answer he wants.

Larry Eichel's e-mail address is leichel@phillynews.com

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