It's official. "Experts Fault Democrats on Economic Platform," declares the page-one headline in The New York Times. The Times' experts have certified what everyone already knows to be true: that none of the Democratic presidential candidates, except for Bruce Babbitt, has an honest solution to the deficit mess.
A Washington Post editorial accuses the Democratic candidates of lacking gravitas, which is an editorial writer's way of saying they're all lightweights. The indictment: refusal to tell the truth about the need to raise taxes; refusal to offend Democratic interest groups. "They've been Mondaled," says The Post. And, what amounts to the same metaphor, they "are unmanning themselves." The Post omits a third count in the standard indictment, which is that they're short on experience, charisma, vision -- the personal qualities that help to put the vita in gravitas.
Regarding the Democratic list, you won't get much of an argument here. My question is: compared to what? Where are the gravitas cops when the Republican clowns come grinning and drooling onto the stage? By what measure, exactly, is this a weightier crowd?
The Times, having damned the Democrats with the curse of the experts on page A1, pointed out on page B8 the next day (under an innocuous headline) that the Republican candidates' own fiscal plans all suffer from the same lack of detail, logic and honesty.
Indeed, on economic policy, the Democrats win the gravitas stakes by default. They at least don't pretend to believe, as does George Bush, or actually believe, as does Jack Kemp, that there's no serious problem. They have at least one candidate, Babbitt, with a credible, specific plan to both raise taxes and cut spending.
The closest the Republicans can come to this degree of straight talk is Bob Dole's dark reference to the need for "bitter medicine." Is there any campaign stunt on the Democratic side to compare for craven fatuousness with Pete du Pont's so-called "Taxpayer Protection Pledge": a blood oath not to raise taxes? Or for sheer idiocy with Pat Robertson's suggestion that increased tax revenues from the extra people are a good reason for banning abortion? As Times reporter David Rosenbaum explained to those who made it to page B8, all the Republicans except Dole actually propose further tax cuts. Spending, too. All the Republicans interrupt their condemnations of big-spending Democrats to endorse costly new goodies.
The gravitas test for Democrats has become: What interest group are you willing to offend? Fair enough. But how would the Republican candidates do on the same test?
One way to look at the Republican triumph in the past two presidential elections is that the Democrats suffered from a pander gap. While they pandered to traditional Democratic groups, the Republicans figured out how to pander to all groups across the political spectrum: those who love big government spending (including defense spending) and those who hate big government taxes.
Apart from du Pont and farm price supports, not one Republican has explicitly taken on a single large spending program. They think they can get away with this because the incumbent spectacularly got away with it. If the Democrats have been Mondaled, the Republicans have been Reaganed -- which involves the removal of an even more vital body part.
Of course they pander best to their own. No Democratic candidate has abased himself as thoroughly as Bush did by stagily inviting Oliver North and John Poindexter -- all-but-confessed perjurers and lawbreakers -- to his Christmas party. No Democrat sounds as comically insincere as Bob Dole does when he's swearing devotion to the new right agenda on social issues such as abortion.
The only candidates in either party with any genuine charisma are the two ministers, Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson, and Jackson clearly has more. Not many of Bush's or Dole's supporters could convincingly claim to be attracted by any sense of Reagan-like magic. In fact, no one on the Republican side has generated even the minimal personal excitement among voters of Paul Simon or Gary Hart. Oh, maybe Kemp on a good day.
Experience? Let's see. Each side has one loony clergyman. One other Republican, Gen. Haig, has never held elective office, and a third, the front-runner, hasn't won an election on his own for 20 years. Each side has one congressman best known for a piece of dangerous demagogic legislation (Gephardt, trade protection; Kemp, tax cuts). The Democrats have two governors of large states, the Republicans one of a small state. The Democrats have three current or former senators, the Republicans one, albeit the minority leader. Call it a wash.
Vision? Never mind. The only reason the Republicans seem like a weightier crowd is that two of them have broken away from the gaggle, and one is the sitting vice president. But Dole is a classic Capitol Hill apparatchik, and Bush is the national twit. The worst thing about Gary Hart's reentry is that it has put off the moment when the mantle of gravitas will descend, however implausibly, on one or two Democratic front-runners.