Politics & Policy

Destroy Carthage!

Why this election matters.

Delenda est Carthago.” This is what Cato the Elder would declare at the end of every speech in 157 B.C. (sorry no Cato jokes today). Colloquially translated, it means “that which stands in the way of our greatness must be removed at all costs.” Literally, it means “Carthage Must be Destroyed,” and it would be my new bumper sticker, if I had a car.

Why? Well, Al Gore has reinvented himself again. This week he returned to the laboratory where he was hatched to show off his down-on-the-farm authenticity. From the Carthage, Tennessee summer house he calls home, Gore explained that “My father taught me a lesson about, well, for example, soil erosion and how to take care of the fields.” His mother gave him a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, where he first learned about pesticides being bad. And here I thought Al had trouble opening up. After this outpouring of emotion, I’m shocked he hasn’t claimed to be the author of Tuesdays with Morrie.

Regardless, for months I’ve been saying that, in the big picture, the upcoming presidential election didn’t matter that much. This was the first all-Ivy League presidential contest since 1912, between a moderate conservative and an annoying, sanctimonious, and creepy moderate liberal. Thanks to the end of the Cold War and the 18-year boom launched by the man who ended it, not much could stop the steady ascent of the United States. I thought that the most that could be said about the stakes of this election was that if Gore won it would make all the annoying people happy.

But I was wrong: This election could turn out be a very big deal.

About a year ago, Bill Clinton told people that he wished he could have been president during a time of real crisis, suggesting that he could have been an FDR. Lost on Clinton was the fact that he could never have been elected during a time of real crisis. Bill Clinton is a custodial president. Indeed, as awful as I think the guy is, I think Richard Posner is essentially right; Bill Clinton legitimized Reaganism. In the same way that Eisenhower validated the New Deal, Bill Clinton has secured Reaganism. Sure, he pushes little Lefty things and hangs big rhetoric out there, but the fact remains that the country is still on the path that Reagan put us on.

Clinton and Reagan defenders alike would no doubt pass milk through their noses upon hearing such an assertion. A Clintonophile might ask “What about the Reagan deficits?!” Well, what about them? How terrible could they be if we’re well on the road to paying them off? Indeed, the reason we are paying them off is because we won the Cold War — so we don’t need to spend so much on the military — and because we are in the midst of the second half of the Reagan boom.

And as for my fellow Reaganauts, don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the two men. Reagan refused to take his jacket off in the Oval Office and stuck with his economic program when he was at 35% in the polls. He never changed his positions based upon his audience. Obviously, one need not flip over Bill Clinton’s side of the coin. But the fact remains that on virtually every major issue (except, to some extent, abortion), Clinton has simply been putting dainty hospital corners on the bed Reagan made. It was, after all, Bill Clinton who declared that “the era of Big Government is over.”

But it really isn’t — and that’s where this election comes in.

Before Ronald Reagan was elected, the only time the New Deal was threatened was during the campaign of 1964. Barry Goldwater spoke of “privatization” of Social Security. Lyndon Johnson promised to multiply the assumptions — and the checks — of the New Deal. This election promises the same kind of choice. Al Gore wants to roll back the assumptions of Reaganism.

While Clinton was Reagan’s opposite morally, and a weather vane on the substance, the same can’t be said of Gore. Gore is a believer. He is the anti-Reagan.

While it may seem that Gore is slipping deeper and deeper into self-parody, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take him seriously. While Reagan believed all his life that America’s best days lay ahead of us, Al Gore fears the future and defends the status quo with an almost medieval tenacity. So many jokes have been made about Gore’s penchant for using the phrase “risky scheme” there are literally none left. Al Gore wants to manage growth and pick and choose good industries from bad. Gore believes — as he told Ward Connerly — that there is a permanent amount of racism in America, and that this requires benevolent lawmakers like Gore to legislate the content of people’s hearts.

Indeed, it is fair to say that there is not a single major domestic- policy issue where Gore has not declared open discussion and reform off limits. When Gore calls for debates, he doesn’t want to have a conversation, as he contends; he wants to call his opponents racists and morons in front of a live studio audience.

And let’s not forget the Supreme Court. In all probability there will be at least three openings on the Court during the next president’s tenure. The Reagan Court — still largely intact — has been slowly but surely rolling back the judicial activism of the New Deal and Great Society eras. The Morrison decision two weeks ago, largely reinstalling the notion of federalism, may turn out to be the most important decision in twenty years. If Al Gore is elected President, Rehnquist’s near-thirty years on the court will be reversed almost overnight. Legal experts predict that a new Gore Court would expand its docket and simply repeal Rehnquist’s legacy as fast as possible.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush is demonstrating that, while he might not be another Reagan, he’s willing and able to carry the torch. Bush’s proposal for partially privatizing Social Security is a big deal. In raw numbers it starts small, but its ambition is big, which is precisely what was said about every statist, “progressive” social-welfare program in history. AFDC was originally launched in 1935 as a pension plan for the widows of West Virginia coal miners and other families where the head of the household was “dead, disabled, or absent.” By the time the Republican Congress ended it in 1996, it had become a subsidy for poor women to have babies. If the internal logic of the 20th-century welfare state demanded more and more entitlements, then — hopefully — the internal logic of a stakeholder society could drive us toward more and more personal responsibility. If Gore wins, he will fold budget surpluses into more entitlements and America’s wealth creation will be hobbled for another generation.

On foreign policy, taxes, regulation (say goodbye to the Microsoft lawsuit if he’s elected), and restoring the credibility of the White House, Bush provides a real alternative to the man from Carthage, Tennessee. If the “Man from Hope” represented little more than the sleaze from Hot Springs, than the Man from Carthage represents all that stands in the way of continuing the Reagan Revolution.

There can be only one conclusion: Delenda est Carthago.


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