||Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He will provide weekly, Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.|
Jeff Greenfield: 'Vote as you shot'
(CNN) -- People like me are not supposed to do this, but here's a tip of the hat to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore: they're engaged in a real debate about a real issue.
Instead of challenging each other's patriotism, compassion, or values,
they're arguing about how best to secure a decent retirement for American citizens. That debate will not fully make up for the weariness of an eight-month-long general election campaign, but it helps.
And how will that debate come out? In part, that depends on whether the
Bush campaign is right about one of its central premises: that the American electorate has changed enough so that it is willing to rethink its once-settled view on a key issue: in this case, whether it's ready to accept a change in the sacred Social Security system.
It's hardly the first time such a question has moved front and center in
American politics. In fact, it's a recurring theme. In the decades after the American Civil War, the Republican Party held more-or-less permanent control over the federal government by telling citizens to "vote as you shot." If you were for the Union, they said, then vote for the party of Lincoln. And it worked; between the end of the war and 1932, only two Democratic presidents -- Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson -- broke the Republicans' hold on the White House.
Once the Depression hit, Democrats turned economic anxiety into a more or less permanent theme. Even in the years of Ronald Reagan, Democrats made substantial gains in the Congress by raising the specter of heartless plutocrats throwing Grandma out into the snow. And any attempt to reform Social Security -- even when proposed by Democrats like Sen. Pat Moynhian (New York) -- was treated as heresy.
Now, the Bush campaign is gambling that an electorate accustomed to
prosperity and familiar with investing on its own, is willing to try
something different -- devoting part of Social Security retirement money to private, rather than government-direct investment. The Gore campaign believes otherwise, that by raising questions about the increased risk to retirement funds, it can also raise questions about George Bush's capacity to handle the presidency.
In effect, the Gore campaign is making the same argument Republicans did
a century ago: "Vote as you shot" -- stay with the party that created and protected Social Security. The Bush campaign is arguing, in effect, "The war is over -- you younger voters understand the market enough to be eager to make some of these decisions on your own."
In the end, the campaign that has best judged the confidence or wariness
of the electorate may well emerge the winner.