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Substance abuse.

In presidential politics, more beef is sometimes less

On the left-hand comer of my desk is a pile of stuff that I plan to read in my spare time. You probably have a stack just like it (the one with the BCCI stories). Whenever my pile gets about a foot high, I bury my guilt and chuck it all. But this year is different, because it's an election year, and in that pile are documents of history: the position papers, speeches, and policy statements of the 1992 candidates for president of the United States.

At the bottom festers the first sign of campaign life, a 1991 copy of Paul Tsongas' 86page Economic Call to Arms (the one packed with "truth-telling" ideas). On top of that is Bob Kerrey's now-forgotten health care plan, not to be confused with Tom Harkin's five-point plan. Both are outweighed by the next stratum, Bill Clinton's Plan for America's Future-which brings me to 1992, where I find George Bush's State of the Union, the accompanying White House press office packet, and the 1993 federal budget. At the surface, barely dusty, are the speeches, issue papers, and debate transcripts that prove that even with the campaign in full swing, there's always room for another idea.

Ah, substance-it's one of the few pieces of good news about Campaign '92. Sure, the contest devolved into debate over personal foibles as it swung through New York, but these candidates have been talking policy as never before. Clinton's booklet reads like it was lifted from the Kennedy School's reserve reading: "By raising the ceiling on mortgage loans eligible for Federal Housing Administration insurance to cover 95 percent of the median price of a home in every metropolitan area. . . ." Then there's Bush's plan for "liberalized treatment of depreciation under the Alternative Minimum Tax," and his call for a "modified passive loss rule for active real estate investors."

It's policy-wonk heaven-and it's apparently what the people demand. For one two-week period in January, Clinton's policy pamphlet was more popular than any book on The New York Times best-seller list: 200,000 copies were ordered in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary. Even in traditionally cynical New York, when voters were asked, "Which qualities mattered most in deciding how you voted?" the most common response was "specific ideas"-well ahead of honesty. The press, reflecting the national mood, has filled its pages with issue forums, debates, and sober analyses. Overwhelmed, I surrendered about four weeks ago and flipped on MTV. On came its political analyst, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, droning on about defense spending.

We asked for beef and we got it: hamburger deluxe. So why am I still hungry?

I'm glad to know that Clinton wants to build "houses with thicker walls and windows, and new compact fluorescent lightbulbs." It's great that he stumps for government-to-government relations between Indian tribal governments and the federal government." And what would we do if Bush didn't have a passion for "an enforceable cap on the growth of unfinanced `mandatory' spending"? But what's lost in this white-paper maelstrom are specific, well-thought-out plans that truly illuminate the candidates' ability to govern: details in areas such as defense cuts, deficit reduction, and welfare reform. There, if you take a close look, the candidates are fudging, flip-flopping, and faking all the way.

Turning on the policy spigot full blast helps a candidate in three major ways. First, it helps him sidestep the bigger, tougher issues-the ones where a brave stand will likely alienate some voters Oust ask Tsongas). Second, it's a swell way to coddle special interests. (See, homebuilders and fluorescent light manufacturers, Clinton wants to up your income.) And third and most important, it's a useful smoke-screen for what might be labeled political character - character that goes beyond college drug use, marital infidelity, even avoiding the draft or tinkering with ethics laws. As today's candidates invent new "policy" and then remake it as they go along, we tend to forget the substance that matters: the ability to stand by a few core political convictions.

The political character test seems especially relevant today, as voters in the Democratic primaries seriously weigh one candidate whose reformist stands on issues from tax cuts to labor-coddling have slowly been reduced to mush against another candidate who, after a series of sensational transformations, now trumpets his lack of conviction as a virtue. (The winner will go on to face the master of the fast-change, George Bush.)

Bill Clinton himself has explained the usefulness of "substance" in distracting voters from this sort of character question. "If you have a detailed program," he said in January, "then when you make mistakes or have to account for past ones, [the voters] will let it slide." In other words, if you throw enough scraps of substance into the air, voters might not notice that your hands are really empty.

Details men

There's little argument that recent candidates, with the important exception of Ronald Reagan, have relied more and more on detailed policy plans. While John F. Kennedy offered just 29 specific programs in his 1960 campaign and Richard Nixon offered 30 in 1968, in 1988 George Bush boasted more than 80 and Michael Dukakis nearly 100. And there's little mystery about the source of this policy burst-the evolution of the presidential campaign process.

Once upon a time, the party picked the nominee. The bosses wrangled over who had the best ability to lead, electability, and the boldest vision, and gave us people like Eisenhower, Stevenson, and Kennedy. The policy, in time, filled itself in. The post-McGovern reforms of the nomination system changed all that. Suddenly candidates had no choice but to take their campaigns to the people first; while John F. Kennedy ran in just seven primaries, Carter competed in 30. And wherever the campaign goes, the priority for voters is "what will this candidate do for me?"-a process that's shifted the focus from the person to the policy. At the same time, there's been a post-sixties explosion in the number of interest groups, who have plenty of (some say too much) pull in caucuses and primaries, sponsoring forums, badgering the candidates with questionnaires, and making endorsements.

Changes in nomination rules inevitably led to changes in the ways campaigns create policy. Starting with Carter's 1976 run for the White House, campaign policy shops have followed a similar pattern: A group of young staffers, under the stewardship of a handful of wizened policy vets and complemented by informal teams of outside advisers, think up innovative programs that run the gamut from agriculture to veterans affairs. But unlike real government, the pressure here is to chum out ideas that sound new, are easy to understand, and most important, are inoffensive to most voters-with little attention paid to whether such plans would ever make it through Congress or even the executive branch.

The people in fundraising want something that will impress the deep-pocket types who show up at their events: George Bush proposes a 10 percent tax credit for oil and gas exploration. The campaign folks over in constituencies want programs that will impress each of their sub-groups: Mike Dukakis offers a two-page, single-spaced issue paper on Opportunity for Armenian Americans." ("Brave Armenians standing up for their civil rights ... will not be ignored by a Dukakis administration.") The campaign press office clamors for fresh-sounding plans that, above all, can be explained in a 10-second TV graphic. Clinton-the reigning sultan of substance-gives us the middle-class tax cut.

The policy specifics are churned out like sausage, and the press begins chomping away. "Clinton's depth on the issues helped make him the front runner," Newsweek recently explained, while The New Republic proclaimed, "Clinton has made policy specificity the threshold test in the primaries." And specific Clinton is. There's a plan to "expand value-added manufacturing of wood products," and others to promote cars that get 45 miles per gallon, community development banks, and a prohibition on unlimited tax deductions for executive pay. He tells us in a recent speech that he supports "expansion of Section 404 authority to regulate activities that impact wetlands." He's even got a program to ensure that "everyone will carry 'smart cards'-small microchips coded with their personal medical information."

Clinton has put a number of important ideas on the table: a venture capital tax credit, an investment tax credit, a "domestic GI Bill" to help students afford college. But what about issues such as welfare reform, the deficit, and defense spending? Let's take a closer look.

* Deficit reduction: Clinton says he'll cut the deficit by $400 billion. How? Cutting $100 billion from defense, trimming the bureaucracy by 3 percent, and raising taxes on the rich. Even his advisers have admitted that the plan is hokum. He'll have to cut entitlements, and he knows it. But, unlike Tsongas, he won't take the plunge. And unless a popular consensus on the subject emerges from the campaign, it's unlikely he'll be able to pull it off as president.

* Health insurance: Clinton's 15-point plan offers a smorgasbord of fixes such as reducing fraud and cutting tax breaks for drug companies. His answer to the big question, health insurance, is "play or pay." That's fine, but when it comes to the one specific we really need to know-how he'll pay for it-he offers little more than "cost controls." Kerrey had the courage to offer payroll tax increases as the answer; Clinton's late-arriving solution takes us nowhere.

* Defense cuts: We need $100 billion more in cuts than Bush has called for, says Clinton. Sounds great. And while Clinton has called for plenty of reductions, most of them are already on the block as part of Bush's $50 billion cuts plan. In fact, Clinton has added tens of billions in defense spending that even Bush doesn't want, such as restoring the V-22 Osprey-made in Texas-for about $25 billion and saving the Sea Wolf sub.

* Welfare reform: Once a supporter of a bold plan-limiting welfare recipients to two years on the dole, after which they'd have to take last-resort government jobs-Clinton has abandoned that pledge. His new mission: a valiant call for "more personal responsibility."

* Ending the recession: The substance behind his ballyhooed plan is little more than "front-loading the new highway bill so we can spend the first two years of money in the first year," and new banking regulations that would prevent banks from foreclosing on some shaky loans. Not exactly the New Deal.

* Middle-class tax cut: Clinton's plan calls for cutting middle-class taxes 10 percent while raising them for people making more than $200,000. This would save the average middle-class family a grand total of 97 cents a day. This is mild redistribution, not economic stimulus; it will neither create jobs nor boost the economy. According to Time: "For a brief time (and then only in private), Clinton conceded ... that his plan was mostly symbolic."

It's not fair to give Clinton all the guff; he's not the only one guilty of substance abuse. Dukakis' specifics included "encouraging international arts exchanges to foster peace"; the establishment of a voluntary program of subsidized home surveys to track pesticide residues; support of normalized Cuban immigration; and the creation of state travel offices to promote tourism packages. But his plans in areas like deficit reduction (collect $110 billion in unpaid taxes through tougher enforcement) and welfare reform (turn the Massachusetts Employment and Training Initiative into a nationwide program) were strictly make-believe.

Or take Bush in 1988: While the GOP candidate was roundly criticized for a failure to make specific commitments, by the November election he had been badgered into releasing dozens of specific proposals, including a $10 million national "anti-radon" plan, creation of an executive branch-maritime liaison, elimination of "Hire the Handicapped Week," the hiring of 100 new agents for the Repeat Offender Program, and a tax incentive for returning strip mines to production. But what about the deficit (remember the flexible freeze?), spurring growth (capital gains tax cut), and health insurance (nothing at all)?

This year, Bush is on the same path. While his 12point plan includes a "major expansion of Weed and Seed to link law enforcement with social services" and an extension of tax preferences for mortgage revenue bonds, he has virtually nothing new to offer on the big issues.

Perhaps the only recent candidates who claimed to offer no-nonsense plans on the tough issues-and did - were Tsongas (tax social security benefits for the well-to-do, increase the gas tax) and Bruce Babbitt (freeze military COLAS, move the entire Medicaid program to the federal level). And look where it got them.

Lost in space

Where do most of the candidates' penny-ante programs come from? The same place as the campaign contributions: special interests. While campaigns often start out with a core of innovative ideas, a remarkable diaspora occurs once the candidate hits the hustings. Say the candidate is scheduled to appear before NASA scientists. His space policy had better be agreeable, since nothing looks worse on the evening news than a room full of angry rocket scientists. Dukakis' issues staff actually faced that horrific possibility in 1988. They promptly abandoned the candidate's prudent opposition to building a space station and cooked up a program that called for a new space shuttle.

Four years ago, a campaign event aimed at winning the Native American vote prompted George Bush's sudden belief in providing "federal incentives to business to relocate on Indian reservations." This year it's more of the same. Clinton betrays his deficit reduction strategy to ensure, while campaigning in Connecticut, the survival of the Sea Wolf nuclear sub. Says former Mondale issues staffer Tamara Stanton, who specialized in environmental policy, "The people in Texas didn't want to hear the same things about acid rain as the people in California. We had to figure out the right time to say what and where. It all stemmed from political calculus-how to maximize the number of votes."

A problem develops when we start taking those specific proposals seriously: Voting for Bush four years ago because he said he'd "stop all ocean dumping" (the EPA itself is still dumping hundreds of millions of cubic yards of dredge disposal) or he'd ensure no net loss of wetlands (30 million new acres have been opened to development). Take it from the guys who cook this stuff up: Don't bank on any of it. "Our goal was to mollify people," explains Dukakis issues staffer Sean Dobson. "I didn't kid myself into thinking I was writing stuff that would become law. I always had the feeling that after we won, we'd sit down and really think about what we'd want our policy to be."

Meanwhile, the job of the issues people is to buffalo voters into thinking their policy is legit, even when some of those ideas are virtually-or legally -impossible to achieve. Consider Clinton's boast that he'll replace the current $2,150 per child income tax exemption with an $800 per child tax credit. While the credit could be phased in at an initial cost of $5 billion, the loss of revenue would soon balloon to $20 billion annually. Clinton never says how he'd make up the difference but with all those numbers, who'd notice? He also says he'll eliminate nuclear power plant regulations that make plant licensing easier, but with these regs already on the books, this too is out of the president's hands. In addition, he promises to veto pay raises in Washington until middle-class incomes are going up again." Good idea, but the president can't do this; Congress automatically receives an annual cost of living increase. The president can only veto pay hikes above this amount that are attached to appropriation bills.

Still, Clinton's empty promises are better than Reagan and Bush's bet-hedging strategy: Both men had a habit of proposing lofty-sounding reforms that were already law. In 1980, Reagan campaigned to establish a strategic petroleum reserve (done by Carter), offer federal aid to part-time students (enacted during the Johnson administration), create an urban homesteading program (done by Ford), and initiate trucking deregulation (Carter again). Bush's plan to make interest on savings bonds used for college tuition tax-free had already been passed by Congress, as had his programs for mandatory child support levels, a parent-locator system, and new Medicaid regulations to prevent people from becoming impoverished before they could receive aid.

Despite the emptiness of the policy game, we bang our spoons faster and harder for more: more ideas, more fixes, more substance. These days, it appears, we are looking not for leaders, but for mechanics. The irony is that history teaches us there is no nexus between politicians with a specific blueprint for repair and those capable of effective leadership. If anything, the opposite is true. What was most remarkable about the New Deal Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed in his 1932 campaign was not what it promised, but what it didn't. Not once did FDR mention the creation of a gigantic works program, the TVA, federal housing and slum clearance, sharply increased income taxes on the wealthy, Social Security, a Civilian Conservation Corps, and a national labor relations board. The few things he did propose (federal regulation of the stock and commodity exchanges, separation of investment banking from commercial banking, a program of agricultural relief, unemployment insurance) were both bold and practical.

While John F. Kennedy may have been guilty of campaigning with candy-coated platitudes, he also eschewed the details and put forth innovative ideas in areas that mattered-a higher minimum wage, national service, a farm support program, more federal aid for cities, a war on discrimination-and then followed through. The idea of Kennedy campaigning, say, to increase the budget of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration by $12 million, as Dukakis did, is laughable.

Even Ronald Reagan deserves some credit for avoiding the substance charade. When his opponents and the pundits clamored for specifics, he smiled, nodded, and stuck to his rather simple vision: less government, lower income taxes, and more defense. Read his speeches and his campaign literature, and, as you might expect, there's not a lot there. But in the end, he stuck to what he promised. For better or worse, we've lived with it ever since.

What Kennedy and Reagan had-and what now garners far less attention than policy specifics-was the ability to offer a broad vision that steered clear of the policy minutiae and the confidence to stand by these convictions, even in the heat of the campaign.

Kleenexed issues

Conviction: It's a term as ambiguous as "character" or "courage." How do we measure it, and how do we recognize it when we see it? One way is to compare the candidate's campaign rhetoric with his past actions. Given the opportunity, what did he do, and how does that square with his current plan? As a senator, Kennedy took a stand against corruption in labor leadership and as a candidate didn't flinch from taking on the unions. Addressing the steelworkers convention, for example, he proposed cutting steelworkers' hours to create more jobs-a plan the union staunchly opposed. The reaction of the workers may have been unpleasant for Kennedy's campaigners to watch on the nightly news, but voters knew-the way we don't in Campaign 92-that the candidate believed what his position papers said.

But we don't have to go that far back for real substance. Thirteen years ago, when Congress moved to bail out Chrysler, Paul Tsongas took the lead in pushing through a package that forced auto workers to give up hundreds of millions of dollars in wage concessions as a condition of federal aid. While there are some stands that a freshman senator from Massachusetts can take that a Democratic presidential candidate simply should not-and bucking big labor unions is one of them-Tsongas didn't flinch here, nor in any of his other fundamental positions, during his presidential campaign. He resisted the temptation of calling for a middle-class tax cut in the suburbs and even mentioned cutting cost-of-living adjustments for wealthy Social Security recipients while stumping in Florida's retirement condo belt.

We already know where Bush stands in the conviction department. What about Clinton? To his credit, he's modeled his education reform package on his Arkansas agenda, including even the less popular parts like mandatory teacher testing. And his call for an investment tax credit to spur industry also mirrors his home state strategy. The question is, will he stick to the substance that counts?

Seven years ago, Clinton helped found the Democratic Leadership Conference, an attempt to go beyond traditional liberal remedies. At its core was a willingness to stand up to organized labor, a refusal to kowtow to special interest groups, and the rejection of populist appeals like a middle-class tax cut. Today, Clinton calls for change wearing an AFL-CIO jacket. He travels to Florida to proclaim Social Security a sacred cow; he panders to the Israel lobby and embraces the middle-class tax cut. At every stop, substance of this sort abounds. But hold it under the light of political conviction for a moment. It vanishes.

"Issues," Jerry Brown said recently, "are the last refuge of the scoundrel." He's got a point. Which brings me back to the pile on the corner of my desk, one that continues to grow. Funny thing is, the more of it I read, the less informed I feel about who'd make the best president. And the better I feel about throwing it away.
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Title Annotation:political issues of 1992
Author:Georges, Christopher
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:The Ross Perot you don't know.
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