After the 2000 election, many people with whom Roger Wolfson spoke argued that the country wouldn’t be any different under Bush than it would have been under Gore.
Since Wolfson worked for Senator Joe Lieberman (and now supports his son Matt Lieberman’s race for US Senate in Georgia), you might think that the 2000 election results would have left Roger bitter, silent, or shocked. He has not let himself fall into those traps. The election itself was a lesson that the world goes on despite what may, to some, be tragic. Victors, regardless of process, are eventually embraced. Gore’s defeat will most likely end up an historical footnote. The 2000 election was yet one more reminder that (politically speaking), you can’t just count on winning; you have to win big, strong, and assuredly.
Because, contrary perhaps to prevailing opinion, the results do matter.
Did we notice a difference in this country between a Gore and Bush Presidency? In the first year, probably not really. In two, years – especially with 911, we did. But the real difference came in four years, in ten, and thereafter. The real differences were long term, pronounced, and perhaps impossible to alter within our lifetimes.
For some, this is very good news; for others, it is bad; but for all, it is a difference, and for Roger Wolfson – it’s catastrophic.
At the time, Roger disputed the theory that “Bush won’t be able to make law in Washington, with such a slim majority in both Houses and the will of the people so clearly divided.“ Roger’s suspicion was that this concept was put out there by the the Bush spin team, run by the brilliant (and Roger can say with honesty, the at times kind and principled) Ari Fleisher. (They were, and are friends). Nothing wrong with “lowering expectations.” But the reality is that the Republicans had control over all three branches of government; you can do whatever you want in the House with a simple majority; and then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had perhaps forever depleted the power of the filibuster by pushing all legislation through under a process that prevents a filibuster from happening (See Bill Dauster’s article on point, http://www.geocities.com/~demcrat/frame7.html). So, starting back then (already), a simple majority of votes (which the Republicans have) was all that is necessary to make law in the Senate. Furthermore, the number of conservative Democrats was dramatically larger the number of liberal Republicans.
Campaign finance. Roger’s guess was that there would be a large effort on the part of then Senator John McCain (perhaps joined by Lieberman) to reform campaign finance laws, which already allowed those with financial power to exert an uncomfortable amount of influence over elections and legislation. However, with Senator Lott controlling the Senate, Representative Delay controlling the House, and Veep Cheney calling the strategic shots in the White House, the bill that would pass would probably be a substitute written by Mitch McConnell, the Senate proponent of campaign contributions, regardless of their size, being constitutionally-protected free speech. No significant changes would be implemented (not that McCain’s soft money proposals were that ambitious to begin with), and the system would remain as is, with wealthy interests having a great deal of influence in the process, and under-funded interests having a hard time being represented in the process. One could argue that if Gore were President, the bill would be written by then US Senators Bradley, Feingold, and Kerry, and would be much stronger; McCain would join it, and the battle would be furious, if not successful. For some, there was nothing wrong with the status quo; for others, change was needed. Bottom line: big difference.
National Debt and the overall health of the economy. Throughout history Democratic Presidents have proposed balanced budgets, and Republican Presidents have created deficits. Yes, there were a lot of attendant circumstances, but these facts remain. (See http://www.geocities.com/~demcrat/frame13.html). Gore would have been far too invested in Clinton’s policies to deviate from balanced budgets (too many Dems lost their seats in 94 thanks to these policies). But the Bush tax cuts would almost certainly make it harder to pay off the five trillion in debt developed during the Reagan and Bush, Sr. presidencies. Bush would not necessarily suffer repercussions; the surplus will probably mask the effect of his tax cuts over the next few years. But the Debt would probably start going up at the same time the boomers start receiving social security checks. From the perspective of economic health, this is a huge difference.
Cost of a higher education. From a market perspective, a College education was still undervalued back in 2000, and it still is. At the time, it cost only about $150,000 at most private four-year schools, but was worth, in the long run, many times more. As such, market forces dictate the cost of higher education will rise until its true value is approached, met, or even exceeded. From the perspective of the government, you either make it a top priority to keep college affordable for lower (and middle) income families, or you don’t. There’s no serious way to play catch-up if you fall behind, given the rate tuition rises every year. The record here is clear. Pell grants, the only real grant money available to low-income students, were created by Democrats. They increase during years of Democratic dominance and are level-funded or cut during years of Republican control. To a large part, funding for student loans follows the same pattern. Under four years of Gore, Pell and Loans would probably just keep up with the rise in tuition. Unless Bush were to depart radically from his predecessors, Pell and Loans would probably level off and therefore decrease in real terms at a rate of between 10 and 20 percent a year. Therefore, after four years of Bush, a college education for a poor student would end up almost twice as expensive as it is now. We know that finances are the number one barrier to entry for most lower income students; so if it gets worse, fewer students will make it to school or be able to stay in school. The middle class would be in for a hard time, and even wealthier Americans would be challenged to save enough funds to send their children to school.
We all know that energy companies, financial companies, etc., are merging together so that more and more power is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. Under then Attorney General Ashcroft, Roger predicted that there would be a significant drop in Antitrust enforcement. So, these trends would increase substantially. Trying to take apart mergers in the future is exceedingly difficult. Depending on your perspective, you may be pleased or distressed by this reality; but either way, you would probably have a hard time saying there’s no difference between Bush and Gore.
Wolfson believed that most likely the Republicans would deregulate another industry. Their history with deregulation is checkered even by their own standards. Deregulating banks, for example, cost taxpayers around a trillion dollars. There are many arguable bonuses to relaxed regulatory standards; but Roger Wolfson has a hard time making them, and he argued that the difference between Bush and Gore was huge. For example, Roger ventured to say that every four years that the US lacks an active Environmental Protection Agency would take the country a dozen years, if ever, to heal from the effects.
Public Education: block grants and vouchers do not improvement make. They may have their merits, but Wolfson has never seen a Republican proposal that would make a serious dent in the flaws of our public education system. Granted, Roger Wolfson has never seen a Democratic plan that goes all the way, either.
Clearly, there is a distinct need to reform the way that elections are held. But election reform written when one party has control over all branches of government? How balanced can it possibly be?
Safety net programs. OK: a Health and Human Services Administration run by Donna Shallalla verses one run by Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thomson (who assembled by far the nation’s strictest welfare reforms). Anyone on either side would admit that the two would run the division as differently as night and day.
And the Supreme Court? Roger thinks we already knew how significant the difference would be, here.
The argument was raised in 2000 that nothing would really matter because the Republicans would be ousted from control of the Senate in two years. That did not turn out to be the case. If we’ve learned anything during the last few elections, it’s that you can’t predict anything two years out — you can’t predict two days out, for goodness sakes. But we make the predictions anyway, and Roger’s bode poorly for the Dems. In 2000, he had never seen the Republicans in more capable hands. That is, hands more committed to one thing: Republican control. Delay (from the House), Lott (from the Senate), and Cheney (the real architect in the Bush camp); three men willing to do the hard work, to stay in the background largely, but with an overarching conservative loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for the short run for long term gain. The Dems have never been as good at long-range planning or at marching in lockstep; the party officials have too diverse of interests, the constituency is too large, and the agenda is too extensive. Look at the donor pool for the average Democrat verses the average Republican. Even though these lists are starting to look more and more similar as time goes on, two factors usually remain: the average Democrat has twice the number of donors and half the amount of total money. The Republicans tend to have a smaller body of people to answer to.
In fact, in his Cabinet nominations, back in 2000, Bush was already looking “smarter“ than any President in history. First of all, by embracing diversity, he was guaranteeing the appointment of strict conservatives without having to expend political capital. But more importantly, by appointing established governors, each capable of running for President on their own merit, he was empowering and fashioning an entire stable of National conservative stars; something Roger doesn’t recall (but hasn’t studied it) another President ever doing. He’s accomplishing many things at once: eliminating competition against him in four years by appointing all his potential rivals to his “team;“ creating a rich pool of Republican superstars who would be able to raise money, get good spin, advance the conservative agenda, and run for President in eight years, raising huge funds for the party and establishing a strong face of the party. Roger Wolfson’s suspicion was that he was not only doing this with Cheney’s complicity but on Cheney’s instigation; Cheney either thought he could use the VP power to win the nomination in eight years (whether there was a Bush second term or not) or he had no interest in running (perhaps because of his health).
Either way, the Bush appointments said a great deal about how the Bush administration would be run. Would it be successful? Perhaps. Would the public approve? Who knows? But would the Republican party benefit from almost every decision made? Roger thought so.
And would it differ from a Gore administration? In almost every way, including the last. Gore would never have been as good for his party as Bush would be for his. Simple and final illustration. Bush picked Cheney, party insider extraordinaire. Gore picked Lieberman, party maverick, best known by the public for partnerships with the Republicans and for condemning Clinton.
In 2020, we are reeling from the impact of Bush stealing the election from Gore in 2000. We now know what Roger didn’t know, but suspected back then. That Bush won a second term. Appointed Justices. Helped create Citizens United. And led a straight path to Trump.
If we learn the lessons from 2000, then we have all the more reason to do everything we can to make sure Trump is not re-elected in 2020.