If George Bush wins in November, Ted Kennedy should brace himself for a big hug. In Debate No. 3, Bush made the case that all we need is love. He wished for a law he could sign mandating it and a planet where we would all "love a neighbor like you would like to be loved yourself." Love, not partisan wrangling, will produce policies that will leave no child behind and extend the life of Social Security while permitting yuppies to day trade the trust fund.
How many candidates oppose love or favor leaving a child behind? I'm all for love, especially if it means not having to forgo retirement benefits if those dotcom investments don't pan out. But it doesn't follow that the Contract with America or Newt Gingrich's willingness to let the Medicare agency "wither on the vine" didn't deserve one heck of a battle, even a government shutdown.
What gives Bush's plea for less partisan bickering its appeal is that the bickering did become personal, thanks to impeachment, and does sound loud, thanks to television. The time when Tip O'Neill argued revenue sharing with Ronald Reagan during the day and drank whiskey with him at night has given way to the city as a sound stage. On cable, every night is fight night where, before you tell the other side your objections to a bill, you're telling Ollie and Geraldo. The camera not only makes it harder to work out the differences, it encourages them.
Bush didn't speak out on partisan bickering during the fiercest, most personal manifestation of it two years ago, but he wants to end it now, when partisan bickering could clarify the issues. In the last debate, Bush took credit for passing a bill allowing patients to sue HMOs, when he actually fought it. But when he's not falsely claiming credit, he is glossing over the details of what it would really take to deliver love--say, in the form of prescription drugs--to ordinary Americans. He seeks refuge in the mantra, "I trust the people, not the government."
This sounds harmless, but in Texas it translates into trusting corporate solutions. So far, this has resulted in record-breaking dirty air in Houston and children uninsured at an alarmingly high rate. (At the federal level, in the Reagan Administration, eschewing mandatory government standards for voluntary ones led to Firestone tires flying off SUVs). This doesn't mean there's no argument for voluntary efforts over government ones, but Bush has to make it specific, not send a political mash note from his well-meaning heart.
Yet Bush has become so smooth with the Oprah language of caring (against Gore's tin ear for it) that he got the biggest applause of the night on David Letterman last Thursday when he repeated the "trust" mantra. Indeed, when Gore in the debate brought up the Dingell-Norwood bill, a bipartisan effort to solve the HMO problem, he might as well have pulled a shiny chrome instrument out of his back pocket and performed an invasive procedure on one of the Undecideds. In the face of details, Bush seeks refuge in his own good intentions, expressed in a warm bedside manner. "You can quote all the numbers you want. I'm telling you, we care about our people in Texas..."