Why Class Warfare May Work This Year
Al Gore has followed Bill Clinton's lead by abandoning the nonworking poor.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, August 24, 2000
Class war was supposed to have gone the way of the Cold War, finished off in the '80s. So how did Al Gore's jeremiad against "powerful forces" rocket him into a slight lead over George W. Bush, who last Wednesday seemed invincible?
That's the way the poll bounces, say confident Republicans. But they shouldn't be too sanguine. The postconvention polls may be inconclusive, but they strongly suggest that Democratic class warfare has an unanticipated resonance in 2000. If so, the reason can be summed up in two words: welfare reform.
By all accounts, the 1996 Welfare Reform Act has been a success, shrinking the rolls by getting people to work. Its political effects have been at least as impressive. It has nullified the underclass--those poor people permanently dependent on government handouts--as a political issue. No longer can Republicans wage class warfare, as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan did with such great success, by promising to protect the interests of working- and middle-class taxpayers from welfare-dependent freeloaders.
At the same time, Democrats need no longer bear the political burden of the underclass and its attendant problems of crime, squalor and illegitimacy. Mr. Gore's convention speech illustrates the point. He promised so many new programs and bashed corporations so mercilessly that it was easy to mistake it for an oration in the great Mondale-Dukakis tradition. But there was one crucial difference: Mr. Gore offered nothing to the nonworking poor. Quite the contrary, he boasted of having reduced their numbers. "Others talked about welfare reform," he said. "We actually reformed welfare and set time limits. Instead of handouts, we gave people training to go from welfare to work."
What a difference from 1988, the year in which Democrats' support for the dependent poor reached its zenith. In those days, the "plight of the homeless" was a fashionable political cause. "Homelessness" is really a problem of mental illness and drug abuse, but '80s Democrats insisted the issues were housing and Mr. Reagan's malevolence. In his acceptance speech at the 1988 Democratic convention, Michael Dukakis promised to "create decent and affordable housing for every family in America, so that we can once and for all end the shame of homelessness in the United States of America."
This year Mr. Gore not only made no such promise, he didn't mention the homeless a single time. That's the difference between Gore-style and Dukakis-style class warfare. Mr. Gore presents himself as the ally of the hardworking, taxpaying American against HMOs, tobacco companies and other unpopular corporations. Mr. Dukakis's ally was the drunken bum who accosts you and demands a buck. That's why Mr. Dukakis got trounced and Mr. Gore may yet win.
Bill Clinton understood all this when he ran for president in 1992. In perhaps the most brilliant calculation of his political career, the Arkansas governor threw the underclass overboard. He promised to "end welfare as we know it." He celebrated the death penalty. And he criticized the loudmouthed rap star Sister Souljah, who had an unfortunate habit of inciting murder.
True, it took a Republican Congress to pass welfare reform, and Mr. Clinton, mindful of his liberal backers, vetoed two versions of the bill. But he did sign the third, and Al Gore may be the beneficiary this November.
Gov. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is the flip side of post-welfare-reform politics. While Mr. Gore ignores the undeserving poor, Mr. Bush lays out a persuasive vision for how to help them--one based on charity and faith rather than entitlement and bureaucracy. Unlike the vice president, Mr. Bush did mention the homeless in his convention speech. He lauded "the heroic work of homeless shelters" and specifically cited the work of Mary Jo Copeland, who runs a faith-based homeless center in Minneapolis.
Compassion, however, doesn't win presidential elections, as Democrats since Hubert Humphrey have learned. If Mr. Bush wants to win, he will have to make a compelling case against Mr. Gore's class-based populism.
Fortunately for Mr. Bush, such a case can be made, thanks to a trend that may have even more political significance than the shrinking of the underclass: the growth of the investor class. Roughly half of American households now own stock, either directly or through mutual funds. Among voters, who tend to be older and better off than the population at large, the rate of stock ownership is surely higher.
Mr. Bush should tell Americans: When my opponent attacks "big corporations," he's attacking you and me. He should emphasize his proposal to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts--a plan that could revolutionize politics by expanding the investor class to include every American who collects a paycheck. No wonder Mr. Gore thinks it's "risky."
"I believe in private property so strongly, and so firmly, I want everyone to have some," Mr. Bush said in an April speech. Compassionate conservatism is a worthy idea, but the power of property should be the centerpiece of the Bush campaign.
Karl Marx said the class struggle would end when workers owned the means of production. Thanks to the democracy of the market, and not the dictatorship of the proletariat, the U.S. is now closer to this Marxian ideal than any society in history. If Mr. Bush fights well, Nov. 7 may mark the end of the final campaign in America's class war.
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