June 2nd, 2006

Regime Change Begins at Home

A Thought Exercise: President Gore

*sigh* With the massive push that the news networks gave his movie An Inconvenient Exaggeration Truth, Al Gore is back in the news again -- "tan, fit, and rested" as they said of a previous vice president when he was ready for his second run for the White House. (And look how well that worked out.) I almost got around to writing this after his Saturday Night Life "President Gore" monologue, but got distracted by other topics. But now I'm running low on inspiration, and this is a good time to tackle it, so I'm going to take a couple of days and work it through as if it were an alternate history -- what if Al Gore had been sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States in January 2000?

First, let me make my prejudices clear by explaining to those of you who weren't reading this back then what I did in the 2000 campaign. I sat out the primaries, because my local township club wouldn't consider any candidate other than "favorite son" Dick Gephardt, who was no more going to become President of the US than he was going to become an astronaut. In the primaries, I quietly supported Bill Bradley. Once the primaries were over, I volunteered at the Missouri Coordinated Campaign and campaigned hard for Democrats Claire McCaskill for Missouri governor and Jean Carnahan for US senator for Missouri ... and grudgingly, swearing under my breath, for Al Gore for President (enh) and Joe Liebermann for Vice President (which made me sick to my stomach every night). I'm a Democrat through and through, but Al Gore is exactly not the kind of Democrat I support: too left wing on the environment, too right wing on economics. And the gods help us, Joe Liebermann is perceptibly to the right of George Bush on every issue, so I have no idea what he's even doing in the Democratic Party, let alone thinking of himself as a viable presidential candidate for that party.

Now, let me lay out the parameters of the exercise. In order to be as realistic as possible, I'm going to change as few of the startup conditions as possible. That is to say, the scenario will be that the US Supreme Court's decision in Bush v Gore will have been to deny the motions of both the Bush campaign and the Gore campaign. Instead, we will assume that they struck a Socratic compromise, and ordered a full statewide recount using the "intent of the voter" standard. This is not such a ridiculous thing for them to have done as you might think. On the contrary, it is what 200+ years of Supreme Court precedent and federal elections law says that they should have done. Traditionally, going all the way back to before the ratification of the US Constitution, the procedures to be followed in elections is a state law issue, and federal courts only have standing to intervene under very narrow circumstances. Except in cases where minorities are being discriminated against in ways prohibited by the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court is only supposed to intervene to make sure that state law is obeyed, and Florida's state law specifically said that recounts were to be performed under the "intent of the voter" standard. When they issued Bush v Gore, the Court specifically said that this was a "one-time" ruling, under special circumstances, and never ever to be used as a precedent for any future court decision. No surprise they said that, in light of how blatantly inconsistent it was. So all it would have taken would have been for one wavering judge to come around to the original intent of the founders (I'm looking at you, Scalia) and we now know, though they couldn't have known it then, thanks to a very expensive and extensive research project by the Miami Herald, that Al Gore would have been president.

I am very specifically not going to change three things that this would not have changed. First of all, it will still have been true that investors will have bought heavily into stocks of computer and software companies on the (foolhardy) assumption that the massive investments in computers and software that were made to prepare for Y2K were going to continue indefinitely. As a result, as 1st quarter sales figures began to show up in 2000, it will still have been true that unemployment will have spiked upwards, stocks will have tanked, many Americans will still have lost their money in various investment scandals, and the effects of this will have rippled out throughout the economy from 2000 to the present. Secondly, al Qaeda will still have attacked the United States on September 11th, 2001. Some of you may doubt this, but I see no reason to believe that an Al Gore Justice Department will have somehow magically acquired the ability to find the important clues in the same pile of misdirection and irrelevance that George Bush's FBI and CIA couldn't sift through in time, nor will his CIA have successfully assassinated or captured Osama bin Laden in time, for reasons I will justify in more detail when I deal with the specific subject of Al Gore and the War on Terror. And finally and most obviously, I am not going to change the outcome of any of the 2000 US House or Senate races, so he still will have had to deal with Republican majorities in Congress.

To give you a teaser for the next several alternate history analyses, some things will have turned out better, for important and plausible reasons. Many will not have, and some will have turned out worse. Don't bother to criticize or argue these conclusions until you see me make my case, but I'm going to show you why I think that Al Gore would have screwed up the economy even worse than George Bush. I'm going to show you why I think that Al Gore would have avoided the Iraq war (and been heavily criticized for that by Congress and the press), but would have instead turned the Afghan War into a major cock-up that would have cost as much money and as many American lives as Iraq has. I will predict that this would have hurt his popularity as much as Iraq has hurt Bush's, even though I'd consider it a (marginally) better outcome than the one we got. I will predict that civil liberties actually would have been worse under a Gore administration, for reasons that I am perfectly willing to defend. On the other hand, it almost goes without saying that we would have gotten better judicial nominations out of a Gore administration, from the viewpoint of all Democrats and nearly all Republicans except for religious conservatives. Stay tuned.
Voted for Dean

President Gore's economy would have been, at best, no better.

As I said yesterday, I'm responding to all of the both pro- and anti-Gore hype surrounding his new movie by looking at his record, his policies, and his positions and trying to assess how he would have dealt with the same historical events that George Bush faced, if it had been him instead of Bush who was sworn in on January 20th, 2001.

Al Gore keeps saying (now, not that he said this during the campaign) that passing the Kyoto Treaty, to set shrinking quotas on already developed nations' carbon dioxide emissions, would have been a key priority of his administration. Let's take him at his word on that. It boggles my mind that anybody would be that stupid ... but then I remember how mismanaged his campaign was and remember that Al Gore can, in fact, be just stupid enough to try to force a ratification debate and vote in the Senate on the Kyoto Treaty in his first few months in office. Why is this stupid? For the exact same reason that it was stupid of George Bush to try to force the issue of Social Security privatization and a Mexican guest worker program in that same time period, for one thing: an electoral college win that slim does not a mandate make. In fact, it would have been even stupider of him, because any sane person would have looked at a Republican controlled Senate and concluded that there was exactly no way that they were going to ratify Kyoto. And if he forced the issue, he would have found himself repeating the exact same mistake that his predecessor had made eight years before over gay marriage -- by getting too far out in front of the public on an issue, spending all of his political capital on a lost cause, and then losing big, he would have started out his Presidency looking weak, foolhardy, rash, and powerless.

What's more, if the debate over Kyoto had gone on for even a couple of months, he would have been in even more trouble. No matter who won the November 2000 election, the stock market was still going to tank, and tank hard, a couple of months into Gore's first term. Nothing he could have done would have changed the fact that an awful lot of stock market money was invested in an awful lot of completely worthless, and frequently outright fraudulent, Internet-related and hardware and software companies. Nor would he have been able to prevent the market from reacting horrifically to the Enron and WorldCom scandals, nor to the accounting scandals. Money was going to flood out of the stock market so fast that those left holding the stocks were still going to lose everything. When that happened, all the government tax surpluses that were being funded by short-term capital gains taxes on churning stock speculation went away, and the government jumped instantly from surpluses to deficits; nothing Al Gore could have done would have changed that. Nor could he have found a way to sustain the consumer spending that was being funded by profits from stock speculation during the bubble, so unemployment was still going to spike. Only for Gore, it would have been worse, because Lou Dobbs would have been on TV every night blaming nervousness about the possibility of the Kyoto Treaty being ratified for the collapse of the dot-com bubble, and comparing Gore to Jimmy Carter.

As an aside, Lou Dobbs would have been really big in a Gore administration. Bill O'Reilly's ratings and advertising are propped up by people who watch him to find out what the government's position is, what the President's position is; by late 2001 his TV ratings would be down there with Rush Limbaugh's. Keith Olbermann gets most of his (tiny) ratings oomph from sarcastic outrage, and I'm not sure he would have had it in him to go after Gore. That would have left Lou Dobbs as the guy whose policies most closely matched Gore's -- and having him be the number one TV news commentator, and then having him start savaging President Gore on his mismanagement of the economy by summer of 2001, that would have really stung the President.

If you're going to suggest that Gore would have handled the return to deficits better than Bush did, or you're going to suggest he would have come up with a more balanced budget than Bush did, or you're going to suggest that he would have found a better way to produce jobs and sustain consumption than Bush did, you're going to bump your nose against a large, immovable, inconvenient reality, and that is this: he wouldn't have done anything different, because when it comes to economics, there isn't a single issue on which Gore and Bush disagree. Gore, like his VP candidate Joe Liebermann, is from the farthest right wing of the right wing caucus within the Democratic Party, the Democratic Leadership Council. (Or, as we among their detractors prefer to call them, the Democrats for the Leisure Class.) He would have tried to deficit spend and tax cut his way out of the hole, just the same as George Bush did, and the results would have been just as horrific.

Al Gore agrees with George Bush that the way to create more American jobs is to flood America with more cheap goods produced by slave labor overseas; if anything, he would have pursued American-job-destroying "free trade" treaties even more enthusiastically than Bush did, because he would have had Bill Clinton's legacy to fall back on. Nor would Congressional Democrats have had the guts to stand up to him the way they half-heartedly have when Bush has tried goofball economic ideas; Democrats willing to follow the leader of the party's instructions would have joined ranks with Republicans and given away every remaining factory job in America. Nor, had he managed to scrape back together enough political capital to tackle Medicare prescription drug coverage in 2003 or 2004 even with the Afghan War still going on, would the result have looked much better than what we got. It might have been simpler, but it would have still been hobbled by a prohibition against re-importing drugs from overseas and a prohibition against using Medicare's clout to negotiate lower drug prices. Why? Because Al Gore, even more than George Bush, believes the pharmaceutical industry propaganda that claims that they're spending the resulting billion dollar windfalls on new-drug research, and Al Gore is all about subsidizing R&D, so he would have fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

And, of course, his economy would still have taken big hits from 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina. Tomorrow: President Gore's "leadership" during the Afghan War.