"Al, get real," an exasperated Jack Kemp cried out during the vice presidential debate. But Al Gore had no intention of getting real. After all, why should he when the Clinton/Gore fantasy campaign has conjured a double-digit lead?
The reason why Republicans are losing the presidential race was written all over last night's debate. They are no longer even trying to raise the stakes and effectively puncture the Democrats' Panglossian view of the world: "All is best in this best of all possible worlds." Jack Kemp's stand seemed to be: Yes, but it would be much better still if the tax code were reformed.
According to the CNN/USA Today poll, Al Gore won the debate 57 percent to 28 percent. But what did he win? It is true that by the end of the debate, we could all sing along with him, "Your risky $550 billion tax scheme." He mentioned that "risky scheme" eight times. Such robotic repetitions. Coupled with the vice president's ticker-tape-like talk about tinkering with tax credits and deductions made this one soulless performance. But who needs soul when you have polish?
Jack Kemp brought passion to the debate but no moral urgency. Would it really have been uncivil to point out to the vice president, who was oozing self-satisfaction, that the middle-class families -- which seem to be his only preoccupation -- cannot insulate themselves from the violence and the social breakdown in our urban communities? It made one long for Kemp's speech at Hillsdale College: "How do we respond when graves are filled with boys not old enough to shave? ... When girls not yet in their teens are taught how to use condoms but not the responsibilities of motherhood?"
And it was not civil -- in fact, it was plain wrong -- to let the vice president get away with his glowing praise of the administration's empowerment zones. He could have quoted Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros himself, who said in a confidential memo to the president that the administration's empowerment zones "are simply not a broad enough program to stand on. We have to have something cooking that is more broadly based and hopeful to more cities."
An article in the Atlanta Constitution earlier this year predicted that "troubled empowerment zones may face election-year scrutiny." But no such luck. Kemp allowed Gore to get away with fantastical claims about programs that local leaders themselves have questioned as "grossly over-promised politically."
What Kemp also failed to do was to take the debate beyond the stale back and forth about reinventing government and getting it off our backs. Kemp bought the Gore view of the world, according to which all revolves around government -- more, less or better.
For the last 30 years, we have been passing laws, spending trillions and navigating public policy from maps that show government at the center of the universe -- as if the sun revolved around the Earth. Is it any wonder that we've lost our way? No amount of civility and making nice with the vice president can bridge the chasm between a world view where big problems cannot be solved without big government and the world view that puts citizens at the center of the universe and assumes that only they and their communities can solve the big problems facing us.
Kemp mentioned the need for strong communities once, but only perfunctorily. And yet, he personally knows hundreds of Americans in the trenches who are building homes, feeding the hungry and salvaging lives in the inner cities instead of lobbying the federal government to do it. Why did he not talk about them? Why, in this wonkish encounter, did he not make the connection between community solutions and the policy debate?
"There's only one last question remaining for the next century," Kemp said in his closing statement. "Can we in America make the world's greatest liberal democracy, this democratic experiment in private property, limited government, the rule of law, respect for families and traditional Judeo-Christian values, work so it can be a blessing to our country?"
That was the one moment when he came closest to raising the stakes. He could have added that the fragility of the Thatcher revolution across the Atlantic proved conclusively that an agenda that reduces taxes, spending and the role of government can only succeed if citizens and communities extend their vision of responsibility beyond themselves and their families to "the least among us." Until Republican leaders recognize this as the central axis of the private-enterprise revolution that Kemp so passionately believes in, they will continue to leave a vacuum that Bill Clinton and Al Gore, like Tony Blair, their glib counterpart across the Atlantic, will gladly and smoothly fill.
The vice presidential debate has been touted as the first preview of the year 2000. It was nothing of the sort. By the year 2000, the chickens will have come home to roost, and indeed to have their necks wrung. And Al Gore's closing remarks about their happy plan for "balancing the budge while protecting Medicare, protecting Medicaid, protecting and preserving the environment, our air, our water, the Everglades, the Tongass, the Mojave Desert in California, the Utah Red Rocks area" will seem even more disconnected from reality than it did the night of the debate.
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