Clear Lessons from a Cloudy Election

WITH ALL THE DEBATE OVER “CHADS,” butterfly ballots and sunlight tests, many Americans seem ready to dismiss the 2000 Election as a new low point in American politics.

That’s too bad, because despite the division among voters, an astounding story unfolded in this election cycle, and many positive developments can be seen on subjects that affect everybody. Let’s take a quick look:

A Campaign of Ideas

George W. Bush waged an ideas-driven campaign that concentrated on and emphasized five issues:

  • Education reform centered on school choice;
  • Health Care reform centered on market processes and choice;
  • Social Security reform centered on private investments;
  • Tax reform centered on marginal tax cuts and abolition of the marriage penalty and death tax; and
  • Defense policy centered on renewed strength and a missile defense system.

These are all conservative policy prescriptions.

But here’s the real moral of this story: These five conservative ideas are now alive among at least half the voters. If a presidential candidate had proposed them in, say, the 1992 election, I doubt if he could have won 20 percent of the vote. This is a rough estimate of how far conservative ideas advanced into the mainstream of American politics during the 1990s.

The fact that George W. Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security didn’t kill him at the polls, even in Florida, proves that Social Security—the long-dreaded “third rail” of American politics—has been de-fanged as a political issue. Exit polls show Bush won 51 percent of voters 60 years and older, proving that even seniors weren’t scared by the demagoguery over Social Security reform. This is a major breakthrough. And it may be just in time, considering the fact that Social Security is expected to begin running deficits around 2014, when the baby boomers start retiring.

An Acceptance of Reform and Values

An issue conspicuously absent from the 2000 campaign was welfare. The fact that both candidates said little about it means that liberals have tacitly conceded the success of recent welfare reform measures. But don’t take my word for it: According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of welfare recipients fell from 12.2 million in August 1996 to 6.2 million in December 1999—a 49 percent drop. Congressional conservatives led the way for President Clinton to end “welfare as we know it,” and now welfare can be sent to the Museum of Dead Presidential Topics with artifacts like the “missile gap,” “stagflation” and the “national malaise.”

Vice President Gore’s addition of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to the Democratic ticket showed that it’s possible to talk seriously about the role of religion and religious institutions in public life. Lieberman’s refusal to campaign on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, sent an important signal to a country weary of the 24-hour news cycle and non-stop campaigning. Lieberman remained true to his faith, and his devotion undoubtedly caused others to reflect on the meaning of God in their lives.

For his part, Bush also took a brave step by declaring Jesus Christ his favorite political philosopher during a Republican primary debate. He could have picked a “safe” choice such as Jefferson, Plato or even Ronald Reagan. Instead, Bush spoke from his heart—something rare in today’s politics. Both candidates also expressed their support for involving faith-based groups in efforts to solve various problems, including teen pregnancy and drug use. That openness toward religion and its institutions is a good step toward re-knitting the fabric of American civic society.

A Means to Advance the Debate

Because we have a basically divided government, many Americans expect we’ll have several years of cautious, status-quo governing. That’s debatable, but even if we do, such a stalemate will allow the new president to use the bully pulpit to promote small, yet popular, policy changes, such as repeal of the marriage penalty and the estate tax. The president can also use the bully pulpit to encourage states to experiment with educational reform, much as they experimented with welfare reform in the 1980s and 1990s.

And we shouldn’t overlook what may be the most important lesson: No longer can anyone say his or her vote doesn’t count. American voters got a real-life civics lesson this year. Let’s hope they put it to good use—and stay engaged.

* * *

The next president will come and go. The next Congress will come and go. But, as Conservatives—standing by our ideals, sticking to our principles, and never backing away from them—this election was a remarkable success story. Support for our ideas is growing.

Ideas, indeed, have consequences.

Dr. Feulner is President of The Heritage Foundation.