Everyone knows there's nothing much separating the presidential candidates; Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council had it exactly right last week, when he described Bush, McCain, Bradley and Gore as four guys "all fighting to serve Clinton's third term." What's really stunning is how frightened people in Congress are of pushing any far-reaching legislation, and that's certainly not going to change until this economy tanks. So for now, there's not much to talk about on the Hill.
There used to be a wait of 20 minutes or so to get into America, and my friend and I would sit around and shoot the breeze with other journalist-and-source pairs. Now the place is almost deserted, and we can get any table we want. As in a Ralph Nader screed, Capitol Hill turns out to be yet another local community destroyed by prosperity?as surely as any fishing village or boondock mill town where everyone stops their scrimshaw-carving and fiddle-playing once they get wired for cable.
Last week, Bill Bradley accused Al Gore of being the man who dredged up the Willie Horton incident to use against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 primaries. Bradley is, of course, correct. Over the decades, the only thing more consistent than Gore's whining about the "negative campaigning" of his opponents has been the ruthlessness of the campaigns he's waged against them. And it was gratifying, too, to see Gore's authorship of the Horton gambit acknowledged by someone other than conservative magazines. But that was the high point of an otherwise torpid week. To listen to Bradley and Gore debate tobacco, for instance, you wouldn't think that anything ever went on on the Hill. When Bradley tried to portray Gore as "soft" on "big tobacco," the record he trundled out consisted of tax votes. It's the classic Democratic logic: Anything you're not for quadrupling the tax on, you're in bed with. I also love the invocation of "big tobacco." Anytime "progressive" tyrants want to abolish anything, they try to accuse it of being some kind of unfeeling corporate leviathan. What if all we had was "little tobacco"? What if cigarettes were hand-rolled by Kentucky craftsmen sitting on rocking chairs on their front porches, and sold in little, out-of-the-way boutiques? Would the Henry Waxmans of the world give them a break? Not likely.
Gore responded to Bradley with apposite fatuity: "I don't know of anybody in the antismoking groups or community," he said, "who would back him up in questioning my commitment." The "antismoking community"? Please! The problem is that neither of these guys was particularly opposed to the Noble Plant before anathema was pronounced on it, and neither has been in anything but lockstep since attacking it became chic. Both are relying on the intentional obscurity of legislative language and procedure, which allow candidates to claim they're either for or against pretty much anything, depending on whom they're talking to. An unpleasant side effect of legislative obscurantism is that it makes political journalism pretty much unreadable, since any political act comes prepacked in a quintuple or octuple negative. "Rep. Chauncey Bloggs," your typical New York Times report runs, "faced criticism today for voting to block a measure suspending the rule to permit a filibuster on debate over whether to override the President's veto of a bill that would have reversed the ban on several efforts meant to stop the de-funding of the Wickersham Amendments.
"'It's an outrage,' proclaimed Veronica Stalwart of the Wickersham Coalition."
Capital Offense Wow! There's now yet another factor making the New York Senate race the most interesting in the country. President Clinton looks like he's running it. It stands to reason. Campaigning is what he likes to do best, his wife is a tin-eared politician, and he looks to be getting mighty bored.
The evidence is that on Wednesday, Hillary spoke in front of Jesse Jackson and friends, thinking aloud about ways to "bridge the capital divide." What she wanted to know was: "How do we get capital where it needs to be?" One hopes that was a rhetorical question. If it's not, one could point out that the largest industry in the United States, in fact the largest industry in the history of the world, in fact, the industry that has driven the whole economic boom of the 1990s, is the finance industry. You know what the finance industry does? It specializes in "getting capital where it needs to be." That's why people in the finance industry are called "capitalists."
Lest anyone think Hillary's inner-city investment plan is her own brainchild, her husband took his upcoming State of the Union speech out for a test drive on the campus of Brooklyn's Boricua College last week, and plugged the same plan. It basically involves bribing big business to pour money down various rat-holes that the administration will designate as new markets.
"For every dollar in equity capital you invest in America's new markets," Clinton promised businessmen, "we will give another dollar in government-backed loans, effectively doubling the investment." Well, that's one way to look at it. Another way is to say that for every dollar big business invests in poor neighborhoods, the President will take a dollar from taxpayers (who might have used it to start businesses and create jobs) and dump it into a kitty to be split by big business and big government.
McCain Goes South John McCain says he'd do better than rehire Alan Greenspan?he'd even promise to drag his corpse around after he died to reassure the markets. Anyone who makes jokes like that has my respect, but one senses a little bit of air going out of McCain's campaign. Most recently, he's been trapped on taxes by George Dubya. (Or George Dubbletalk, to give him the sobriquet his campaign merits. This, after all, is a "pro-life" candidate who stalwartly refuses in interview after interview to promise he'll keep the pro-life plank in the GOPplatform.)
Bush has proposed an across-the-board cut that is not only at odds with his own moderately big-spending tenure as governor, but also actuarially impossible. In order to cut taxes deeply, Bush would have to cut programs deeply, which he'll never do. What Bush's tax cut does is leave McCain with two bad options: first, he can propose something even stupider and more implausible, and lose New Hampshire. Second, he can propose something more reasonable, and allow Bush to cast him as a left-wing pussy in South Carolina. He's done the latter, and Bush has been eating him up. With veteran-intensive South Carolina coming into play this week, McCain should have had a golden opportunity, particularly since he's got the backing of the energetic and popular Congressman Lindsey Graham. There are only two things any presidential candidate has to talk about down there, and Bush refuses to talk about either of them. First is legalized gambling; the Democratic candidate Jim Hodges backed gambling in the 1998 elections and scored a stunning eight-point blowout of incumbent Republican David Beasley. McCain's against gambling. Bush would "leave it to the states." Second is the practice of flying the Confederate Stars and Bars over the South Carolina state capitol, which has become a hot racial potato. A tv ad campaign has compared the flag's supporters to the KKK, and state Sen. Arthur Ravenel in turn has called the NAACP the "National Association for Retarded People." When Ravenel apologized, it was hardly the apology his foes were looking for.
"I apologize to the retarded citizens of the world for putting them in the same boat as the NAACP," he said. "I was after them, but on the way to their throat, I insulted the people I love the most." (By this, Ravenel was apparently referring to his son, who has Down's syndrome.)
People want a candidate to answer two questions: (1) Do you think flying the flag is racist? and (2) What should be done about it? The first question has only one correct answer. It is a racist symbol, period. The stars and bars may have stood for a variety of things?ranging from slavery to states' rights to the Southern way of life?when they were carried into battle in 1863. But the more recent flying of the Stars and Bars?a practice that started in the early 1960s?stands for only one thing: opposition to the Civil Rights movement. The second question, what to do about it, admits to many answers. A candidate could support the flying of the flag, he could call for a boycott of the state or he could say we live in a federal system and say the decision on whether to fly it is up to South Carolina. That's the position both McCain and Bush have taken. But that still leaves the first question unanswered. McCain's instinct was to be honest. He condemned the flag as a racist symbol. Bush's instinct was to be dishonest, and to follow the Bush Family Rule of never thinking more than is absolutely necessary. When he said it was "up to the states," Dubbletalk made believe that this absolved him of any responsibility to take a stand on whether he's satisfied with the outcome of the Civil War. (He's probably not, but that's another issue.) Pressed on the question, he said, "I'm not going to say anything more." Gutsy!
McCain was on his way to a loss in South Carolina and a breakthrough in the rest of the country when he panicked, and lost everything. He explained that, while he wasn't so crazy about the flag himself, he "understood how others might not feel that way," since it was a matter of "heritage." With that, McCain pandered to racists, because the only "heritage" the flag represents is Jim Crow. Then he bragged, "I have ancestors who have fought for the Confederacy, none of whom owned slaves." With that, McCain managed to leave Southerners outraged, and with good reason. Is he saying that Americans whose ancestors owned slaves have less right to run for office than Americans who didn't? Or that voters, at least, should distrust them? Does he want to tell us what side his ancestors were on in the Highland Clearances?