2000 issues cut Democrats' way

By Robert Kuttner, 09/12/99

he 2000 election may well be a lot more interesting and consequential than it appears from 14 months out. For one thing, it is shaping up as a serious national debate about issues, most of them economic. The Democrats have a lackluster front-runner in Al Gore, but the big pocketbook issues cut their way.

On Wednesday, Trent Lott, the Republican leader in the Senate, told reporters a deal for a tax cut in 1999 was all but dead. The Republicans want an $800 billion tax cut. President Clinton has offered $300 billion, tops.

Clinton wants most of the surplus to go for Social Security, Medicare, children's health and education, and financing a new prescription drug benefit. By overwhelming majorities, the voters agree.

GOP leaders hope to take this issue to the country. Although Clinton would prefer a tax cut deal this year, his party would be far better served by a rip-roaring election debate - in which public opinion is strongly on the Democrats' side.

Another key issue is education. The Kaiser Foundation, National Public Radio, and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government recently sponsored an in-depth poll on voter attitudes toward education. By margins exceeding 3 to 1, voters not only endorsed more education spending; they supported paying higher taxes, averaging around $500 per taxpayer, for such school basics as relief of overcrowded classrooms, better pay for teachers, longer school years, and introduction of computers.

Remarkably, a majority of senior citizens with no children at home said that they'd be willing to pay higher taxes to finance the learning of the next generation. (This is not just compassion talking; it is the earning power of young workers that keeps Social Security solvent.)

Even low-income voters split evenly on whether they'd pay higher taxes to finance schools. The poll found that most people think public schools are improving and deserve more public support.

So a second great debate will pit more public support for public schools against Republican plans to splinter public education with vouchers. Democrats have a compelling counter to Republican vouchers in charter schools and other forms of choice and variety that preserve and strengthen the public system.

A third major pocketbook issue that cuts the Democrats' way is health security. On the key question of patients' rights, leading Democrats now have the support of about 20 House Republicans for a tough bill. The Dingell-Norwood bill would allow patients to sue HMOs that overrule the doctor's judgment about what's best for the patient.

The Republican leadership is haplessly aligned with the widely resented managed care industry, trying to depict the bill as nothing but a bill of rights for lawyers. (Whenever Congress proposes to give underdogs legal redress, Republicans attack lawyers.) But in this case, the GOP is once again on the weak side of a popular issue.

Republicans and their insurance industry allies may succeed in blocking the patients rights bill for now. But if they do, they hand the Democrats yet another a winning issue for the 2000 presidential election. Vice President Gore has also recently unveiled a plan for universal health coverage for children, another big winner with voters.

So 2000 is shaping up as something close to a parliamentary election - in two senses.

First, there is a true battle of contending public philosophies - a real choice. Second, if the Republican wins, he will likely sweep into office with a majority in both houses and the ability to complete the Reagan-Gingrich revolution. (A Democratic presidential win would almost certainly yield a Democratic House, but not necessarily the Senate.)

All of this is good for the health of our democracy in general and for Democrats in particular. On the 20th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's sweep, mass opinion is rather more liberal than elite opinion.

While elites are obsessed with the soaring stock market and relief from government, ordinary people worry about daily pocketbook concerns like the security of their health care and the quality of their kids' schools. (The wealthy simply buy their way out.)

Despite two decades of government-bashing, the nonrich still look to government to provide what markets cannot. Ideology may simply be blinding the Republicans to voter preferences.

For Democrats, if you have a fairly lackluster candidate - and this surely describes both Gore and Bradley - the next-best thing is to have the issues cut your way. Imagine - an election that is interesting because it is fought on issues voters care about. We could do a lot worse.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.