Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Not quite.
Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush were obviously reading off similar scripts, or polling data, in their opening campaign tours last week. Listening to them -- in English or the practiced Spanish phrases both interjected -- you could imagine the late George Wallace saying, "There's not a dime's worth of difference between them."
But in fact there will be plenty of disagreements if they wind up as general election opponents -- something their challengers still have plenty of time to prevent.
It was no accident the two men chose the same themes to introduce their campaigns. A Gore-Bush race would ultimately come down -- as one of Gore's advisers put it -- to voters deciding who "is the more credible centrist." Bush is helped by having several candidates of the ideological right among his primary election opponents. Gore's only challenger, former senator Bill Bradley, is a centrist -- but the dynamics of the Iowa caucuses are pushing him to Gore's left.
Parsing the Bush and Gore speeches, you could tell that the consultants on both sides have discovered that:
(1) Whichever candidate voters judge is most likely to keep the economy humming will probably win the race. Gore used the word "prosperity" four times, claiming paternity of the current boom for President Clinton and himself and asserting "I know how" to keep a good thing going. In a shorter speech, Bush promised "prosperity" or a "prosperous" nation no less than a dozen times, and jabbed that Gore has no more claim to inventing this economy than to creating the Internet.
(2) Despite low unemployment and high stock prices, American parents are under stress -- short of time and worried about crime, drugs, guns, trashy entertainment and the general tawdriness of the moral climate. Gore and Bush both responded by parading their own strong family ties and stressing their readiness to mobilize community and religious institutions to attack social problems.
(3) Voters want a guarantee there will be no Monica scandals in the next White House. Symbolically raising his right hand in a mock-inaugural oath, Bush solemnly promised to "uphold the dignity of the office." And Gore, often seen during impeachment days defending Clinton, not only vowed to "bring my own values of faith and family to the presidency," but told Diane Sawyer's television audience that Clinton's conduct was "awful" and "inexcusable."
So where are their differences? Here are a few:
Taxes: Bush promises lower rates; Gore is silent.
Trade: Bush seeks lower tariffs, period; Gore wants them, too, but nods to congressional Democrats' demands for labor and environmental protections in future trade agreements.
Abortion: Gore gives an unhedged commitment to "a woman's right to choose"; Bush says he'd have no "litmus tests" on judges, but his goal is legal protection for the unborn.
Guns: Gore wants new controls; Bush says enforcement of current laws is the key.
Social Security: Gore vows "no privatization"; Bush favors "the option of investing part of Social Security contributions in private accounts."
Bush says he would be an "activist" president, but Gore plainly sees a much bigger role for the federal government. Bush would push deregulation, much as his father did. Gore wants new laws on environmental protection, patients' rights and urban growth patterns among other things.
But to gauge how different their agendas would really be, you have to know a lot more than they have let on so far. Gore gave not a clue how he would pay for his extremely ambitious education package or all the benefits he dangled for those in need of medical assistance. Bush was just as vague on foreign policy. It's all very well for him to say U.S. policy should be "driven by American values and American interests." But the whole China debate turns on the question of whether our commercial interests in that vast market should prevail over our commitment to human rights. How would he choose?
Even more striking are the topics certain to be on the next president's desk that neither man has addressed. Not a word on the criteria they would use to decide when to commit American forces in regional disputes. Nor about the growing crisis in our health care system -- with rising costs and 43 million now uninsured. And though the oldest baby boomers will be 62 when the next president finishes a second term, neither Gore nor Bush has begun to address those retirement demographics -- what they mean for a labor market already short on critical skills and how we finance the long-term care those aging boomers will need.
Speak up, gentlemen.