Posted on August 18, 2000 in Washington Watch

What emerges clearly from a comparison of the content of the platforms and programs of the Republican and Democratic conventions is the fact that there is a deep philosophical divide that still separates the two parties’ approach to governing.

This is so despite efforts made by both parties to present themselves as moving towards more centrist political positions.

The Republican convention attempted to portray that party as more compassionate, inclusive and moderate. Representatives of minority groups were on prominent display and themes were struck that have rarely been heard at Republican national gatherings.

The Democrats also sought to portray their party as moving in a more centrist direction. The nomination of Senator Joe Lieberman, one of the Senate’s more moderate Democrats, was a sign of this approach as was the focus given to more traditional Republican themes such as promoting a strong defense, reducing crime and promoting values.

This notion that both parties have blurred the differences that once separated them is also the message of the Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader and the Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan. Nader complains that Democrats have abandoned their liberal roots, while Buchanan rails against what he calls the Republican drift into liberalism.

While these observations have some validity, at their core, both parties remain fundamentally committed to their traditional attitudes and approaches to governing. This is reflected in both their programs and in the composition of their core activists.

Republicans, for example, claimed to be more inclusive, but a study of Republican delegates at the national convention showed 90% of them to be white. 57% described themselves as conservative and a similar 57% earned over $75,000 per year (with almost 25% of the total being millionaires).

While the Democrats posed as a less liberal party, their delegates had very liberal positions on issues. 73% believe that government should do more to solve national problems (as opposed to 4% of the Republicans who have this view). The Democrats were also strongly opposed to the death penalty and over 87% favor government programs to help minorities make up for past discrimination.

The central divide that has emerged between the two parties, however, is not what are called social issues and questions of values. The key debate between Republicans and Democrats will be over matters of budget and taxes.

With the federal government anticipating record high surpluses during the next ten years, Republicans are proposing massive tax cuts to, as they put it, “return money to its rightful owners”. Conservative Republican ideology has always been framed by an abhorrence of government—their motto being “the government that governs least, governs best”. The anticipated surplus, therefore, provides Republicans with the opportunity to drastically reduce the size of the government by across the board tax cuts.

At the same time, the Republican approach to addressing several current problems facing Americans—the need to improve the educational system, the need to salvage the social security pension program and the need to provide greater health care coverage for senior citizens—is to, in effect, privatize these programs. Rather than invest new money in improving the nation’s public educational system, Republicans propose providing cash grants to individual families (in effect, a tax rebate) so they can afford to send their children to private schools. Similarly, instead of continuing to strengthen the national program called “social security”, Republicans propose allowing individuals to bypass the new mandatory federal pension program and to invest their own money in stocks or bonds.

Democrats contest this notion that government is evil and believe that it was their use of better government programs and fiscal responsibility that created the US’s current prosperity. They propose to use the surplus in four ways: 1) to provide some limited tax cuts for middle income Americans; 2) to pay off the national debt (largely accumulated in the 1980’s); 3) to provide economic security for the social security and medicare programs; and 4) to provide for needed social spending in education, crime prevention, environmental protection and improved health care for children and senior citizens.

Coupled with this Republican aversion to government and promotion of individualism is the Democrats’ populist assault on major corporate “special interests”. The target of the Democratic ire this year are tobacco, oil and pharmaceutical companies, gun manufacturers and the gun lobby and the health management organizations (HMO’s). It is, Democrats claim, because of the pressure exerted by these entities that they have not succeeded in passing legislation to provide needed reforms and regulation.

Republicans counter by charging that Democrats are beholden to “special interest” pressure of their own—principally from the nation’s once-weakened but now resurgent union movement, but also from issue-based lobbies, especially those representing women, minorities and environmentalists.

As a result of these competing pressures there are differences between Democrats and Republicans on issues like gun control, abortion, minimum wage and civil rights.

There are, to be sure, areas of agreement. Both parties have supported expanding “free trade”—an issue that has fueled both the Nader and Buchanan campaigns. Nader argues that free trade harms American workers’ rights and encourages worker exploitation and environmental abuse internationally. Buchanan argues that free trade weakens U.S. sovereignty. Both minor party candidates also attack the Democrats and Republicans for failing to enact serious campaign finance reform.

But these few points of convergence do not erase the profound differences that remain. The two major party conventions, despite their occasional thematic flirtations with more centrist positions, ended by emphasizing their traditional philosophies and points of division. And in this election it is, of course, these points of division that will be the focus of the continuing debate.

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