November 1, 2002
HERE'S THE BEEF:The Perpetual Campaign: An inquiry into these questions: Will years of running for President pay off for Walter Mondale, as it did for three previous candidates? Does Mondale, or any other Democratic candidate, have any new ideas? And what is the party going to do about entitlement programs, and about the unions, whose support it needs but whose expectations may have become an obstacle to economic recovery? (Gregg Easterbrook, January 1983, The Atlantic Monthly)
To some degree, all the leading Democrats propose the following "micro" actions: eased monetary policy to bring interest rates down; more federal spending on education and job training, now called "human-capital investment"; a new industry-government-labor partnership to meet international competition; heavy government spending to rebuild the country's "infrastructure" of roads and bridges; modification or cancellation of Reagan's third tax cut, which is scheduled to take effect next July; restoration of some of the programs hurt by Reagan's budget cuts, such as child nutrition and health-screening; mild decreases in defense spending; large government subsidies for industrial research and development; and an "industrial policy." The proposals for an "industrial policy" are extremely vague, but their tao is Japanese; they are inspired by the model of the Japanese government's support of business.
Noticeably absent from this list are items from the traditional Democratic social agenda, such as minority advancement, expanded civil rights, and full employment; Kennedy, long a champion of national health insurance, alone continues to advocate that idea. Whether or not the Democrats have reached the conclusion that many activist social goals aren't sensible or practical isn't clear, but all the contenders have decided that now is not the time to press for them. [...]
Mondale's "micro" prescriptions include lowering interest rates, both to fuel the economy and to cut the budget deficit by lowering the government's borrowing costs; letting the dollar's value weaken, to promote U.S. exports; encouraging small-business innovators and entrepreneurs and discouraging further corporate mergers; establishing a federal "capital budget," which would list "infrastructure" and other public-works items separately from social and defense spending; generously funding these public-works projects, both to accomplish the reconstruction and to generate jobs; encouraging industry-labor-government "partnership," perhaps by means of an advisory tripartite commission; increasing the budget of the Export-Import Bank, which subsidizes U.S. exports; perhaps providing more "trade adjustment assistance," the special unemployment-benefits program for workers laid off as a result of losses to foreign competitors, primarily in the steel and automotive industries; strictly enforcing various trade protections, such as the regulations that restrict imports of foreign steel; and opposing, though not formally restricting, the loans that banks and pension funds may offer outside the U.S. [...]
Mondale is calling for a strict back-to-basics emphasis in curriculum, an indication that he has freed himself of at least one conventional liberal doctrine; the U.S. cannot hope for a booming high-technology industry, something Mondale and all the Democrats say they foresee, when fewer than half of U.S. public schools require more than a year of science or math for a high school diploma. That situation is, in large part, a product of the liberal drive to make school "relevant," a cause that Mondale championed in the late 1960s and early l940s. Mondale says that liberals were wrong to care about "access" to the exclusion of excellence. There is evidence that he believed this all along: all of his children attended expensive private schools. Among his prescriptions for "excellence" now, the chief one seems to be more spending, especially to pay higher salaries to teachers. I suggested to Mondale that if one thing about public education can be known for certain, it is that more money does not guarantee better performance. In the past twenty years, public expenditures on education have risen 515 percent, a rate far ahead of inflation; classroom loads have fallen from an average of 25.6 pupils to an average of 18.9; teacher salaries have soared. Yet nearly every level of achievement has fallen. A recent study by James S. Coleman, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who in the 1960s produced the most persuasive statistical case for school busing, argues that inner-city Catholic and private schools are doing a better job of educating children even though their classes are much larger, their teachers are paid $5,000 a year less, on average, and they have virtually none of the expensive audio-visual aids that are common in public schools. There is, of course, an important difference between public and private schools: the teachers in most public schools are union members. In unionized schools, firing a bad teacher has become all but impossible; Philadelphia, for instance. has fired twenty-four of its 13,000 teachers over the past six years (meaning that it has kept as competent teachers 99.82 percent), and each firing has taken, on an average, two years to accomplish.
Mondale refuses to place any blame for the schools' condition at the unions' doors. He complains of lack of public respect for teachers, and says. "Good people won't go into teaching today." In truth, good people can't get into teaching today, even if they want to. With unions having made it effectively impossible to fire bad teachers, and most school systems laying off teachers because of declining enrollments, there are very few teaching jobs to be had. The higher salaries that Mondale advocates, if offered, would simply be a windfall to present holders of teaching jobs.
While in the White House, Mondale was a force behind the establishment of the Department of Education, which was created almost entirely as a gift to the largest teachers' union, the National Education Association. (He has another close tie. The NEA is a client of James Johnson's consulting firm.) The NEA has fashioned itself into one of the country's most effective political forces. It supplied 10 percent of the delegates and alternates to the 1980 Democratic Convention—by far the largest bloc—and may supply an equal share in 1984. It contributed $1.2 million to congressional candidates—316 Democrats and eighteen Republicans—this past fall. Public-school teachers, like other government employees, make especially strong-willed lobbyists, since when they vote they are electing their employers. Among the NEA's paramount concerns are higher teacher salaries and non-accountability. (While issuing the obligatory statements about "excellence," the NEA furiously opposes all teacher-competency testing.) Mondale has shown no willingness to challenge the teachers' self-interest, and it's hard to see how American public education can improve until some leader does. This would not be an easy task, by any means. [...]
On issues where there is no self-interested voting bloc, however, Mondale has adopted stands that depart from liberal dogma; his re-education campaign, though it may have been initiated mainly for its public-relations value, nevertheless has had an effect on his beliefs. He opposes plea bargaining for those accused of violent offenses, favors construction of new prisons, and favors security guards in inner-city schools. All these positions are anathema to conventional liberals. (It's useful to recall that, not long ago, liberals opposed sodium-vapor streetlights, because they considered "crime prevention" a racist code phrase.) On defense, he emphasizes the need to build up conventional rather than nuclear forces. Noting the curious near-delight that officials in the Reagan Administration seem to take in describing American weakness, he says, "There's no reason to be frantic about our defense posture." But, perhaps in order to counterbalance his endorsement of the nuclear freeze, and to avoid the classic liberal problem of appearing to be "soft on defense," he accepts nearly every Pentagon weapons request except those for more warheads. "High technology is the cornerstone of our defense," he says, and he claims to be undisturbed by the evidence of complex weapons that don't work. He favors a strict hospital cost-containment bill and a shift to health-maintenance plans (in which profits are made by keeping people well and minimizing the services they need) and thinks these could reduce the federal budget by $7 billion. Here, at least, he seems ready to oppose one interest group—the medical profession—by restricting the rate at which hospital charges to Medicare may increase.
In the end, what may make Mondale most attractive as a President to voters is the fact that he does not call out vindictiveness or anger in them. Each of our recent Presidents has been elected mainly by running against something. Nixon was the anti-liberal candidate, Carter the anti-insider candidate, Reagan the anti-government candidate. And each of these Presidents operated his administration in "anti" fashion, practically announcing, from the moment of taking office, that there were whole segments of American life that he would refuse to acknowledge. Mondale, with his background in old-time coalition politics, isn't like that. If there can be a President who is able to inspire a purposeful cooperation among industry, labor, and government, Mondale might prove to be one, but to succeed, he must be willing to say no to his supporters in organized labor, as Reagan should be
willing to say no to the wealthy. Washington today is like a commodity-traders' pit, where whoever shouts the loudest gets the next deal, and at everyone else's expense. Can Mondale or any other candidate, of either party, rise above constituency politics and govern? The need is clear. Replacing a President who favors one side with a President who favors another will surely serve some interests but not the national interest.
Part of the fascination of this piece of course is that it is twenty years old, which also means that Mr. Mondale may have changed his mind on some of these issues by now. But it's startling to realize just how wrong he was and what an unmitigated disaster his election in 1984 would have been. From his slavish devotion to every special interest group on the Left to wanting to make American industry function more like Japan's to wanting to raise tax rates to refusing to consider entitlement reform to opposing any education reform that the NEA hadn't endorsed to supporting the nuclear freeze, a Mondale administration might well have added to our current entitlement and education crises the continued existence of the Soviet Union and an economy, like Japan's, in decline.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2002 8:16 AM