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Published on Tuesday, July 11, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Thou Shalt Not Appear Weak To Voters
by Matthew Miller
It's now official: There's no "left" left in American politics.

With the Democratic party platform signed and sealed, Ralph Nader a fringe sideshow, and Al Gore still backing missile defense in spite of the technology's latest spectacular failure, we're now able to catalogue the core maxims of Democratic electoral calculation and tote up their cost.

The modern Democrat's first electoral commandment is, "Thou shalt not be seen as weak on defense."

This is what the missile defense debate is about: defense for Democrats at the polls, not defense of the nation. Sane experts agree that even if the technology could be made to work (a huge "if"), any space-based missile shield could easily be thwarted by foes with the wit to surround their missiles with low-cost decoys.

This assumes, of course, that "rogue" nations would be dumb enough to invite retaliation by lobbing missiles at us anyway, when suitcase bombs could do the job better and anonymously.

No, the Clinton-Gore embrace of a space-based missile shield is meant to defuse the "weak on defense" line of attack in the campaign. The price tag for this insurance policy starts with $60 billion in future "Star Wars" spending on top of the $60 billion already spent. And that's before you toss in the Democrats' continued embrace of Cold War levels of Pentagon spending at $300 billion a year - even though there's no Cold War.

The modern Democrat's second electoral commandment is, "Thou shalt not appear to be a big spender (unless, of course, its for weapons or cops)."

This commandment lies behind the extraordinary priority placed by the Democratic platform on paying off the national debt over the next decade. This is a bizarre, misguided fetish, since the debt has been falling relative to the size of our economy. Its akin to someone feeling compelled to pull the kids out of college and use the cash instead to pay off their mortage, even though their income is rising each year.

Yet after ushering in historic budget surpluses, the party of FDR and LBJ now stands first and foremost for eliminating the debt - not for eliminating child poverty, or grossly unequal K-12 schooling, or America's 44 million uninsured.

Indeed, Gore aides fret that as surplus estimates surge the vice president will face pressure to add new spending proposals that leave him vulnerable to Republican attack. To modern Democrats, this fresh bounty is not the nation's best chance in decades to offer fixes that take money, but a political problem to be navigated.

I don't want to seem naive, of course. It does no good to have bold ideas that can't be implemented because you can't get elected. That's why I've never been troubled, for example, when ambitious Democrats publicly support the death penalty, even when in their hearts they don't (commandment three: "Thou shalt not be seen as soft on crime.")

After all, why get worked up about whether a handful of heinous criminals gets killed each year rather than locked up for life? Especially when failing to back the death penalty means being fatally (if idiotically) dubbed "soft on crime," costing otherwise promising candidates a shot at improving education or health care for millions?

The key difference is this: Insincere support for the death penalty doesn't divert billions of dollars each year from dire social needs. It simply corrodes the soul. That's politics.

With the price of insincere support for more defense spending or debt reduction so high, however, you have to ask if the Democrats' electoral calculations are correct. They're based on the reckoning that most of us are too stupid or uninterested in the details - or that the media is too shallow to give them an intelligible airing - to make it "safe" to argue, for example, that in the year 2000 we should spend less on defense and more on the uninsured.

The tragedy facing progressives these days is that these assumptions may be right. The question is how to change them. Until then, as Shakespeare might put it were he a TV pundit, the fault lies not with our Democrats, but with ourselves.



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