Arthur Schlesinger was irate at the White House ceremony honoring my father last month. He does not care for Joseph Lieberman. But I calmed him down by pointing out that without Lieberman, the Democratic ticket would have had absolutely no representation from Yale.
American politics used to be simple. Democrats (Roosevelt, Kennedy) came from Harvard. Republicans (Bush) came from Yale or nowhere. But Clinton changed that, taking over the Republican turf. It was – we should have known it – the first triangulation. And so now Gore (Harvard) has Lieberman (Yale) for a balanced ticket, while on the Republican side our Governor has degrees from both Yale and Harvard (M.B.A.). Which makes up for Cheney, who went to Yale for a year but flunked out.
Now let’s get serious. Does this election matter? You bet it does.
First, Social Security is at stake. The Bush plan for Social Security is radical and destructive. It goes far beyond anything even Ronald Reagan suggested in his salad days. Bush would take one dollar in six, as Gore said, and invest that in private accounts. The result: big cuts in future benefits for today’s workers, while the system, which is sound today, would be thrown into financial crisis. Bush does not say how he would finance ongoing benefits for current retirees.
It’s true that Lieberman flirted with Social Security privatization. But he showed discipline and retracted that view last month. Opportunistic, yes, but so what? Such a change is a one-way street. Gore and Lieberman cannot now abandon Social Security. Instead, they have put forward a sensible plan – associated with my old hero among economists, Robert Eisner – for expanding it: “Social Security Plus.”
Second, full employment is at stake. Here again, Bush has out-done Reagan. His tax cuts would reproduce Reagan’s formula: deficits, high interest rates, debt deflation. The difference is that even the faint economic rationale for the Reagan plan does not exist today. Then, there was inflation, and so in 1980 you could make a thin case for capital-gains tax cuts on the ground that one should not tax purely nominal (inflation-caused) gains. But the vast capital gains enjoyed by the rich in the Nineties were for real.
Third, did you read Gore’s acceptance speech? It was impressive. While the press focused on the big kiss, the speech made a different point. Gore is serious. He is staking his race on the issues. Why? He hasn’t got any choice. Issues are who Gore is. This isn’t fake – for once. Why is Gore coming clean now? Easy: None of the earlier fakery was working. And if we can’t take a politician seriously when he commits like Gore just did, when exactly can we?
Then there is the politics of it all. Bush’s ride, up to the week before the Democratic convention, had been smooth. Not a missed step, not a hiccup in Philadelphia. Bush is thin material, but his handlers were doing very good work.
Gore’s Lieberman pick punctured the Republican balloons. But his speech moved the campaign onto a different plane. It said to the voters: Pay attention. This election is about how you are ruled. And by not giving them anything else – nothing, nothing – Gore actually succeeded in getting this point across.
It was fun watching the press try to blow it all off. I saw Chris Matthews dismiss an early Lieberman speech as “talking points.” The day after the convention, some Fox reporter tried desperately to re-focus on to the tracking polls and the “lack of bounce.” But then, the bounce came. As Gore floated down the Mississippi, it was clear that he had shifted the terrain absolutely.
And if the election now unfolds as a discussion of what Bush would do on taxes and Social Security, against what Gore will do on health and education, how can the Republicans win?
So what can Bush do? He’s got to meet Gore on some of the issues. And of those, there is only one on which George Bush feels comfortable and is reasonably lucid at this early stage in his political education. And that is education, itself.
But therein, lies the problem. Education. George W. hasn’t got one. He went to Yale.
James K. Galbraith has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and three graduate degrees from … well, Yale.