As the primary campaign gets rolling, are we going to hear big, bold solutions to our big, hairy problems? The past is not encouraging. Seven and a half years ago--in another America--Vice President Al Gore and former senator Bill Bradley battled for the 2000 Democratic nomination. It got nasty, with Gore playing the heavy. As recounted in Bob Shrum's delicious memoir, "No Excuses" (which is actually full of excuses for Shrum's losing streak as a consultant), the vice president twisted Bradley's ambitious health-care plan until it looked as if Bradley had neglected seniors. At first, Bradley was too aloof and gun-shy for an effective response. Later, he overreached by comparing Gore to Richard Nixon.
Similar hostilities will eventually break out among the contenders in 2008, with fresh ideas and plans little more than cannon fodder. But there's also plenty of countervailing pressure now to confront problems with more than platitudes. Candidates are torn between the need to show some imaginative beef and a fear that if they do, they open themselves up to distortion. For a genuine national conversation on issues beyond the Iraq War, they need to overcome that fear.
Campaign operatives like to argue that worthy-sounding position papers have nothing to do with governing. Not so. While many challenges and specific policy proposals will likely be different after the election, the only way to build a mandate for transformative change is to begin laying the groundwork during the campaign. And we learn something essential about the candidates from the scope of their visions, even if the boldest ideas usually originate outside the presidential campaign, from books by people like Gore and Bradley, now liberated to think big.
Gore has a decent shot at a Nobel Peace Prize this fall, and he's greeted on his book tour with calls for him to run in 2008. A close friend and former top aide, who was unwilling to talk out of school for the record, says the odds of a Gore campaign are still only about 10 percent. The Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth" and enthusiastic response to his new book, "The Assault on Reason," has not kicked off any contingency planning. In fact, the very reasons he offers in his book for "reason" being under assault are the reasons why he'll likely take a pass. If you want to know how Gore has, as he says, "fallen out of love" with politics, it's all there, in the form of a jeremiad about contemporary society.
Gore starts from a trenchant premise that our means of processing information and finding rational solutions are badly corrupted by television, a theme he has been exploring since college. Without any misplaced nostalgia for a pre-TV age, he argues that the "marketplace of ideas" that grew out of the rise of the printed word and the Enlightenment has been largely supplanted by a medium best suited to stoking fear, which is, he notes, "the most powerful enemy of reason."
The human mind, Gore writes, is now nearly hard-wired to respond to emotional but fundamentally trivial human-interest stories on TV. He cites the pathetic tale of John Mark Karr, who the cable networks strongly suspected was faking his connection to the Jon Benet Ramsey murder case but covered breathlessly anyway. Gore's thesis has been further validated, of course, by the thirst for Paris Hilton's jailhouse saga.
He doesn't say so explicitly, but this older and wiser Gore knows that once he entered the race, his big ideas on climate change and other serious issues would be overwhelmed by a tide of celebrity freak shows and silly discussions of whether he is too brainy and fat to be president. On his book tour, he is repeatedly confessing that his experience in 2000 shows he's "simply not very good" at negotiating that part of politics. This is not false modesty.
The best part of the book is where Gore connects TV's appeal to fear and emotion to the Bush administration's success in assaulting not just science and the realm of fact, but our greatest public monument to reason, the U.S. Constitution. His brutal indictment of what the Bush-Cheney era has done to the country is cogent and convincing. Gore's solution is not to elect him (or anyone else in particular) president, but to move away from a television-based society that's "accessible only in one direction." Without true interactivity, Gore writes, it's much harder to launch the democratic conversation and reasoned deliberation necessary to solve problems. He cites the run-up to the war, but might just as well have been talking about the fear-mongering of the current immigration debate.
Not surprisingly, Gore's great hope for restoring a "well-connected citizenry" is the Internet (which, by the way, he never claimed to invent, merely fund and promote). The subtext of the book is that Gore will run in 2008 only if he genuinely believes the Internet has matured in time to redeem American politics. Otherwise, why risk his new stature as a global elder statesman?
"The Assault on Reason" contains no policy prescriptions, but Gore's big idea these days is to tax pollution, not payroll. If the payroll tax--the biggest tax most businesses and individuals pay--were replaced by a stiff carbon tax, the United States would simultaneously move away from dependence on terrorist-supporting oil thugs in the Middle East and toward a remedy for global warming. This would be a huge change--Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance are all currently funded by the payroll tax--and it's unlikely to come any time soon. But Gore wants to get the conversation going, even if TV doesn't lend itself to discussions of tax policy. So far, none of the candidates in either party is talking about taxes at all.
Fittingly, Bradley comes to the same conclusion on the payroll tax in his new book, "The New American Story." Because payroll taxes now account for nearly 15 percent of labor costs, Bradley estimates that shifting away from that structure will draw many of the 24 million part-time workers into the full-time work force, a real boost for both business and the middle class. Like many others, Bradley would compensate by implementing a $1-per-gallon gasoline tax or equivalent carbon tax over five years.
But there's another way to cut emissions that might be more politically palatable than a steep gas tax, which has long been a nonstarter. It's an even bigger idea--a "sky trust," as described briefly in the book "Capitalism 3.0" by Peter Barnes, who argues that the atmosphere is a "commons" that belongs to everyone. A sky trust would be modeled on the way Alaska handles oil revenue or how a waste-management company would operate if it owned dumping rights to the sky. Instead of the proceeds of a steep carbon tax going to the government, where it might be wasted, the "assessments" would go into a huge trust, then sent back to all stakeholders (the public) in the form of a dividend check at the end of the year, the same amount for each person. Those who drive more and are thus assessed more also usually live in parts of the country where the cost of living is lower and the rebate check would go further. And people who cut their carbon footprints would likely end up ahead of the game.
On other issues, Bradley does the hard work of delineating exactly what needs to be done to reform health care, education, pensions and the political process (where he favors public financing and Saturday voting), before showing exactly where the money would come from. The former New Jersey senator builds on the work of Matthew Miller, whose path-breaking book, "The 2% Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love," explains how Americans can have their cake and eat it, too, by investing as little as two cents on the dollar in a set of rearranged priorities. Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed also have a book out with provocative plans, as does Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Democratic presidential candidates aren't completely hopeless in the fresh-ideas department. Hillary Clinton is pushing universal prekindergarten. Barack Obama has offered a "health for hybrids" deal where government helps the auto companies handle their crushing load of health-care obligations if they promise to invest half of their savings into hybrid cars. John Edwards is wheeling out a proposal to spend $5 billion a year on a cabinet-level department to advance international education, disease prevention and poverty relief, complete with 10,000 American experts enlisted and sent abroad in a new "Marshall Corps," a combination of the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps.
Chris Dodd is outspoken about restoring the habeas corpus rights of suspected terrorists. Joe Biden is out front in favoring a "no-fly zone" over Darfur and inserting an international peacekeeping mission. Bill Richardson doesn't equivocate on Job One for the next president: "First and foremost, we must repair our alliances."
All this compares favorably to the Republican candidates. The party that once enjoyed a near monopoly on new ideas seems short of them, with the exception of Tommy Thompson's thoughts on preventative health care and Mike Huckabee's plan to stir productive creativity with federal funding for art and music education. John McCain rarely mentions his bill for an enlarged national-service program, nor Mitt Romney his Massachusetts health-care plan. Climate change and ending dependence on foreign oil are barely on the GOP radar at all.
Only one of these folks (or someone not yet in the race) is going to be president. Maybe after they lose, the others can take a leaf from Al Gore and Bill Bradley and get serious about how to fix the country.
Originally published in Newsweek.