Not a Dirty Word Liberalism Finally Gets Some Respect
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Al Gore is making the L-word respectable again. Everywhere he goes, he advocates government activism of a kind that's been out of favor since Michael Dukakis was tarred as a liberal and lost the 1988 election to George H.W. Bush. Gore is betting that Americans feel so prosperous that they're willing, even eager, to give to the less fortunate--and to use government as the vehicle for delivering those services. It's hard to overstate how big a change this is. Only a few years ago Bill Clinton declared, to thunderous applause, that the "era of big government is over." Now, with budget surpluses replacing deficits, Gore believes liberalism can be resurrected.
Even Republican George W. Bush has noticed the leftward lurch of the electorate. He may have capitalized on it before Gore did. When Bush put "compassionate" in front of "conservative," what he really meant was "I'm not a cold-hearted, anti-government Newt Gingrich." Bush wants to do much of what Democrats have always wanted to do; he just doesn't want to spend as much doing it.
Bush's position sounds more sensible than Gore's. After all, voters couldn't have completely changed their minds about the role of government. Doesn't the Texas governor simply have to accuse Gore of fiscal excess to win? Not necessarily. The central fact about politics and government these days is that Uncle Sam has more money than he knows what to do with. The budget surplus will exceed $700 billion over the next five years and $2 trillion over ten years. The challenge facing the new President and Congress will be what to do with that bounty. Neither Gore nor anyone else is likely to be berated for spending too much.
This New World of Washington is very much like the Old World of Washington, except that now lawmakers have the resources to do what they have always wanted to do: spend, spend, spend. Republicans are as happy as Democrats to spend. They say they aren't; that's what makes them Republicans. Don't believe them. Secretly, they are pleased, pleased, pleased that they can pamper the voters too. That's why Bush has offered a pricey alternative to Gore's plans for a prescription-drug plan for the elderly. In an era of surfeit, fiscal restraint is passe.
Of course, if prosperity ebbs and the surplus disappears, the equation will change. What's more, citizens aren't so enamored of government intervention that Gore actually uses the word "liberal" in his speeches. But his bet on the "L" philosophy tracks well with the direction Washington is already quietly heading.