A tip of the hat to George W. Bush, who — for all the press’s preaching about the “sharp disagreements” that supposedly have emerged between him and Vice President Gore — has managed to obfuscate whatever such differences exist and to advance, as his principal claim to being elected president, that he really doesn’t disagree with Gore very much.
In the last of the three presidential debates last Tuesday, Gore led off with one of his usual sermons about how much he and the federal leviathan he wants so desperately to master will do for the health of the citizenry. “I support a strong national patient’s bill of rights,” the vice president intoned. “It is actually a disagreement between us.”
“It’s not true,” the Texas governor riposted. “I do support a national patient’s bill of rights.” Like Gore, Bush in the previous debate also expressed support for federal hate crimes legislation. Like Gore, Bush is against “racial profiling.”
On affirmative action, Bush clearly did not want to say that he’s against it, though that was the direct question asked by the member of the audience and that’s the position the vast majority of his own supporters take. When Gore asked him point blank a second time, “Governor, are you against affirmative action?” Bush dodged again.
“If affirmative action means quotas, I’m against it,” he said. “If it means what I’m for, then I’m for it. You heard what I was for. He keeps saying I’m against things. You heard what I was for and that’s what I support.”
Why couldn’t the governor simply have said to the questioner, the vice president and the watching world: “Affirmative action means the federal government grants privileges to individuals on the basis of race and gender. I’m against that. I believe in promoting people on the basis of their merit, regardless of race and gender. I’ve done that in Texas, and I’ll do it in the White House if I’m elected, but I won’t let the federal government discriminate against people and deny them jobs, promotions and admissions to college on the basis of race and sex.”
By saying that, he would have placed Gore on the defensive, forcing him to deny that affirmative action discriminates on the basis of race and sex or to defend a policy that clearly does so discriminate.
Throughout the debates, Bush sounded like nothing so much as a schoolboy who hasn’t done his homework and is trying to bluff his way through his teacher’s scrutiny. Gore, for his part, sounded like a schoolboy who not only has done his homework but is eager to tell the teacher that George hasn’t. Gore, in other words, an unreconstructed and unapologetic liberal, knows exactly what he thinks, is able to support it with all the drippy cliches and slogans that have characterized liberalism in this century, and doesn’t hesitate to preach it. Bush isn’t exactly sure what he thinks and seems totally incapable of supporting whatever it is.
“It’s a difference of opinion,” Bush insisted again and again. “He (Gore) wants to grow the government, and I trust you with your own money.” “There’s just a difference of opinion,” Bush said again. “I want workers to have their own assets.” “I think after three debates, the good people of this country understand there is a difference of opinion.” Yes, there’s certainly a difference of opinion, which is why there were debates at all. But why is one opinion better than the other? Bush rarely told us. He brought up the “difference of opinion” to close off debate, not to deepen it.
“The difference,” the Texas governor finally assured us, “is I can get it done. That I can get something positive done on behalf of the people. That’s what the question in this campaign is about. It’s not only what your philosophy (is) and what is your position on issues, but can you get things done? And I believe I can.”
The “philosophy,” in so far as there is one, that Bush offers is political pragmatism at its baldest, the belief that goals, ends, purposes are irrelevant or are not up for discussion and the only thing that matters is the process — how to “get it done.” At no time did Bush challenge or question the basic assumptions and goals of the liberalism his opponent champions. The only question to Bush is which candidate can achieve those same goals more effectively.
Americans attracted to Bush need to think carefully before they pull the lever for him next month. They’ve been told there’s a difference between him and his opponent. What the debates proved is that there’s not very much.