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The people versus the preposterous
By W. James Antle III
Much has been written about Al Gore's recent New York Times op-ed broadside against the Bush administration from the perspective of politics and personality. This piece has led many commentators to conclude that Gore is hoping for a reprise of 2000 in 2004, albeit with a different outcome: He seems to be planning on running against George W. Bush and using the same populist rhetoric. Observers who are more critical of the former vice president note that it looks like his petulance and self-righteousness will be back again too.
Yet not enough has been said about the mentality and ideology the article betrayed, far removed from Gore's centrist reputation. More was at work here than simple partisan Bush-bashing. Speaking to the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee and a possible candidate for the 2004 nomination, wisely attempted to steer his party away from class warfare. He acknowledged that the Gore-Lieberman ticket's "people versus the powerful" slogan was detrimental because it reinforced the Democrats' anti-business image, at the expense of the progress "New Democrats" had made in reconnecting with investors and middle-class voters during the 1990s. It was in response to this criticism from Lieberman and other Democratic moderates that Gore penned his diatribe.
In addition to reciting a litany of Democratic talking points against the Bush administration, Gore was stinging in his rebuke to the DLC Democrats: "Standing up for the people, not the powerful, was the right choice in 2000. In fact, it is the ground of the Democratic Party's being, our meaning and our mission."
Despite all Gore's rhapsodizing about "the people," his program consists of government second-guessing of their choices and micromanagement of their lives in order to protect them from "the powerful." His policies assume government can spend money more wisely than "the people" can. Tax cuts, to the extent they should be enacted at all, should not consist of lower marginal rates or abolishing levies - "the people" should only be allowed to receive "targeted tax breaks" when they behave in bureaucratically approved ways. Such "targeted tax relief" should also be denied to taxpayers with incomes greater than certain arbitrary cut-offs, regardless of how much they are already paying in taxes, and paid out as subsidies to those with little or no actual tax liability. Thus, instead of getting tax relief, some "working families" would have their income redistributed to others.
At bottom, Gore may self-righteously claim that he, unlike his opponents, sincerely believes that "the people are sovereign" but he doesn't trust ordinary people very much. He believes that without strong federal intervention, they will destroy the environment, build corrupt businesses, engage in rampant discrimination and fail economically. Despite his professed concern for "the future of democratic capitalism," Gore prefers the security he sees in authoritative government to the risk involved in the free market. He may talk about economic growth, but all his policies focus on redistribution of existing wealth.
Certainly, the financial world has been rocked by unethical business practices in recent months and anybody who - unlike Gore - has ever spent an extended period of time in the private sector knows how imperfect businesses can be. Given that human beings are imperfect, this is to be expected but it does not make life any easier for those who have been victimized by the greed or stupidity of their employers. But the fact remains that the free market has done a much better job at creating wealth, improving living standards, providing financial security, ameliorating poverty, advancing technology and contributing to the overall well-being of humanity than any demagogue who ever claimed to be able to use raw government power to do the same things.
Moreover, no rich person or corporation is anywhere nearly as "powerful" as the federal government. A corrupt business may cheat you out of your property, but government not only can confiscate your property but your liberty. No one has ever been jailed or executed by WorldCom or Enron. When the Founding Fathers wanted to protect the people from the powerful, they did so by decentralizing and limiting government.
The Constitution contains enumerated powers as a grant of authority to the federal government from the people. The last two amendments in the Bill of Rights make even more explicit the Constitution's protection of the people from federal powers. The Ninth Amendment reads, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The Tenth Amendment reads, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." The Framers clearly distinguished "the people" from their government.
Blogger Patrick Ruffini has even noted that Gore's mantra was questionable on its own terms: "Was there any message more jarring and inauthentic than the 'people vs. the powerful,' especially for a guy who grew up on Massachusetts Avenue? Gore might as well have campaigned in his St. Albans tie and had Marty Peretz give stump speeches for him, because people in 2000 saw straight through the rhetoric and voted as if that had been the case all along."
However, the problem isn't just with the messenger. The substance of the people versus the powerful message is that Americans are in direct competition for slices of a finite economic pie, with government acting as referee. This is a false portrayal of the economy designed to pretend that the only way fairness can be achieved is to entrust wise and compassionate people like Gore with government power. In the age of the New Investor Class, the owners of capital aren't rich robber barons. They are ordinary working Americans.
Directly contradicting the Founding Fathers, this version of the "people versus the powerful" in fact centralizes power in the hands of the political class. To suggest that they do not constitute a "special interest" or the "privileged few" is to deny reality. The people will in fact be freer to create prosperity through innovation and excellence living in the constitutional republic of their Founders than in Al Gore's nanny state.
James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.
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