The Pretenders

Daniel Ruen

THE ESSENTIAL heartlessness of New Democrat economics was underscored last week when Bill Clinton announced that he was now considering a tax cut--while at the same time his administration dropped its plan to provide AIDS drugs to low-income Americans infected with HIV.

The new generation of anti-AIDS drugs, known as protease inhibitors, are wildly expensive--over $15,000 a year, a price tag that places them out of reach for a majority of those infected with HIV. Six months ago the administration promised to come up with a plan to provide protease inhibitors to those who cannot afford them. Now that proposal has been scrapped because, in Washington-speak, it is not "revenue neutral," meaning it would cost money. In other words, you can currently get government assistance (through Medicaid) if you're dying of AIDS, but you cannot get the drugs that could help prevent the disease in the first place. No wonder the president's own commission on AIDS this weekend denounced this scabrous backtracking.

Since the U.S. is the least taxed among the advanced industrial nations, you'd think that a decision amounting to a death sentence for thousands of Americans--sacrificed on the altar of tax cuts for Al Gore's presidential ambitions--might generate a public outcry. Instead, the chattering classes were obsessed all week with Dick Gephardt's speech at Harvard last Tuesday, designed to lay out the principles on which he plans to run for president.

It is a sign of the vapidity of our political discourse that the Beltway pundits professed to find in Gephardt's speech a declaration of war against the Clinton/Gore administration. The House minority leader's proclamation that "we need a Democratic Party that is a movement for change and a movement for values--not a money machine," a fairly innocuous locution, was interpreted as an attack on Clintonism. Even Gephardt himself seemed surprised at the storm of media interpretation, which strained to find in his words a criticism of the president; he rushed to deny any such intent, and said how much he "admired" Clinton.

For anyone who bothered to catch C-SPAN, it was pretty weak tea indeed. Gephardt laid out the "five goals" that he placed at the heart of his politics. "A high-growth economy"? Is there anyone but Alan Greenspan, custodian of the bond market, who's against it? "Honor and reward work to support our most important institution, the American family"? The Christian Coalition could not take exception to that one. "Advance" the "values of America" in the "wider world"? Every retread Cold Warrior hums that tune.

Only when he identified health care as a "basic human right" did Gephardt's "goals" depart somewhat from the national consensus. But even here, the Missouri congressman confined himself to generalities about "national health-care reform" shorn of any concrete proposals.

In fact, with the exception of reiterating his opposition to NAFTA and fast-track trade deals, and calling for another increase in the pitifully low minimum wage, Gephardt's script was woefully devoid of specifics. No wonder the Kennedy School audience, with John Kenneth Galbraith prominent in the front row as a reminder of principles past, sat on its hands. The only time Gephardt was interrupted with applause was when, in response to a question, he averred that the presidential campaign season was much too long (it is, of course, the money chase that makes it so, but Gephardt failed to offer a plan for campaign-finance reform).

Gephardt may have chirped that "we must challenge the status quo," but he failed to do so in any serious way. After all, the man whom the punditocracy is now touting as the leader of his party's liberal wing was the first chairman of the neoconservative Democratic Leadership Council that spearheaded the drive of the national Democratic Party to the right. A charismatically challenged flip-flopper, Gephardt wants to appropriate for himself the mantle of "progressivism," identifying himself as a political descendant of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But what's needed to revive politics in America is the spirit and populist passion of a Fighting Bob LaFollette, not a robotic incantation of boilerplate lifted from Democratic platforms of years past.

We need political leaders who will tell us how we got to where we are so that voters can figure out where we need to go. By denying that his feeble jabs contained any criticism of Clintonism's cruel opportunisms, Gephardt showed he's not up to the task.

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