"That's what this debate is about--the role of government in America," George Bush told a cheering crowd near Denver. "It's not just the difference between Big Government and smaller. It's the difference between a Big Government that thinks it knows best and a smaller government that believes you know better."
The Bush who spoke these words was not the Texas Governor but his father, the President, fighting his losing re-election battle against Bill Clinton in the fall of 1992. What's striking is that George W. Bush all but repeated the lines in last week's presidential debate in Boston. After spending a year trying to convince people that he's a different kind of Republican, Bush is hammering Al Gore with the same old-fashioned theme that didn't work for his dad. "There is a huge difference in this campaign," he said Tuesday night. "It's the difference between big, exploding Federal Government that wants to think on your behalf and a plan that meets priorities and liberates working people to be able to make decisions on your own."
A thick, befuddling fog settled over the presidential campaign in Boston--a blanket of contradictory facts and assertions that hasn't lifted yet. But two basic images loom through the haze. The first is Bush's portrait of Gore as a retrograde liberal who wants to patch up the edifice of the Great Society. The second is Gore's portrait of Bush as a faithful servant of the rich and powerful who wants to wire-transfer the surplus into the bank accounts of the upper class, spending "more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%" than he does for new education, health-care and defense programs combined. Are Bush and Gore right about each other? Every campaign serves up a cartoon version of its opponent. But these two caricatures are worth examining, because doing so helps explain how each man would govern, where their records and philosophies are fundamentally different--and where their plans are more alike than either cares to admit.
Gore's caricature of Bush has been in place for a year, but Bush's picture of Big Government Al didn't come into focus until Sept. 28. During a speech in Green Bay, Wis., Bush charged that Gore "has left the vital center of American politics...[and] cast his lot with the old Democratic Party," betraying the reform-minded moderates that Gore helped propel to power in 1992. "The Vice President was seated right behind Bill Clinton at the State of the Union when the President declared, 'The era of Big Government is over,'" Bush said. "Apparently, the message never took...He offers a big federal-spending program to nearly every single voting bloc in America. He expands entitlements without reforms to sustain them."