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There's a Lot at Stake


By Andrei H. Cherny

For a four-year-lease: Historic 200-year old 42,820-square-foot home on 18 landscaped acres in downtown Washington, D.C. 132 rooms and 32 bathrooms. Five floors. 29 fireplaces. 3 elevators. Tennis court. Swimming pool. Single bowling lane to bowl alone. Movie theater. Newly installed jogging track. George Washington never slept here, but a lot of other famous people have.

Recently, Coldwell Banker Realtors estimated that if the White House were put on sale today, the asking price would be $63,893,550. Yet this year, the campaigns for president of the United States will spend hundreds of millions more dollars than that to place their respective candidates into the Executive Mansion. This huge expenditure indicates that our choice this November 5 is about a lot more than pomp and ceremony, and that whom we choose to live in the White House for the next four years makes a real and lasting difference in our lives.

This marks the first in a series of "Election 1996" columns, which will seek to examine the major issues of both policy and politics that will shape the campaign in its final weeks. Some may legitimately wonder whether it is necessary to use up the space, time and trees necessary to publish columns on an election whose outcome seems a foregone conclusion. No president has ever been leading by such a wide margin at such a late date and then gone on to lose. Unless space aliens blow up the White House and the President is somehow unable to shoot them down with his fighter jet (or an equivalent terrestrial event intercedes), Bill Clinton will be the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 to be reelected for a second term.

Yet, presidential elections are about more than who ends up winning. They are a window onto America's soul, and they are a time for taking stock of our nation's life. We are given a moment to examine ourselves and find where we have been, where we are and where we are going.

Nineteen-ninety-six marks a year in which that self-examination is more important than at any other time in recent memory. America, and its political life, is in the midst of three major transformations. Each of these shifts will offer November's victor the chance to make the decisions that will set our course into the next century. In case you haven't heard, both candidates want to build a bridge to the future. The challenges of the next four years ensure that they will have no other choice.

The end of the Cold War means that America has been robbed of much of what was its governing rationale for more than 40 years. In matters at home and abroad, we still feel adrift and continue to search for a sense of national purpose.

At the same time, the past decade has seen a remarkable transformation in how our economy functions. The global Information Age that we have entered presents challenges to the way we conceive of our workplaces, our homes and our government's role in our lives.

The third major transformation has to do with our political system itself. For the past 60 years, the political debate in our nation has revolved around the same thesis of New Deal liberalism proposed by Franklin Roosevelt and expanded by Lyndon Johnson. The antithesis was the conservative critique created by Barry Goldwater and mastered by Ronald Reagan. For six decades, in election after election, the argument continued between entitlement and libertarianism, between providing security and allowing entrepreneurship.

That endless argument is no longer applicable to today's world. As President Clinton said in his State of the Union Address, "The era of big government is over." The question now is, "What comes next?" This is the decision America must make in 1996.

Bill Clinton and Bob Dole offer two very different perspectives on that decision. Yet, on this page on Monday, The Crimson Staff wrote that the "Presidential Race Offers No Choice." The editorial castigated Bob Dole for his lack of new ideas and Bill Clinton for the horrible crime of paying too much attention to trivial issues like "fighting crime, fighting drugs and fighting the deficit." While it is true that Bob Dole has less vision than a bat with its eyes closed on a foggy day, his 15 percent tax cut plan is a serious proposal that is both achievable and in line with what GOP governors have been doing around the country.

The Republican nominee's stands deserve at least as much attention as his falls. Dole's plan, whether the candidate really believes in it or not, is the classic "less government, lower taxes" proposal Republicans have been advocating for years. Yet it ignores the new ideas of people such as his own running-mate Jack Kemp and the attractive critique of government involvement developed by writers such as Marvin Olasky in his book,The Tragedy of American Compassion. Unfortunately, at a time when the Republican Party is home to so much innovation on the state and local levels, Citizen Dole is as much a captive of the ideological ossification of Capitol Hill as was Senator Dole.

The staff editorial went on to fault President Clinton for "governing from the middle," a pejorative phrase only in those zip codes where people actually find those "Mr. Jenkins" Tanqueray Ginads funny. While Bob Dole's big idea for a tax cut has been derided, elite quarters have also sneered at President Clinton's collection of little ideas. No, V-chips, school uniforms, curfews and food safety may not make liberals' mouths water in the way that universal health care coverage did. However, Clinton's assortment of pygmy proposals makes a real difference in people's lives.

Even more importantly, the President's education proposals would revolutionize America's economy by making the 13th and 14th grades of junior colleges as universal as the bottom 12 have become. Clinton is proving that while big government is dead, active government is still in demand.

There is a real contest of ideas in this campaign. Bob Dole offers a government that gets out of the way and lets people solve their own problems. Bill Clinton believes that the government should help people equip themselves to solve their own problems. This is a debate with real merits, and one that exposes the central fault lines of American political discourse. It is a debate we can be proud of, and a debate that is worthy of the campaign to elect the first president of the next century.

Andrei H. Cherny '97 is the Election '96 columnist for The Crimson. His column will appear periodically through January.

Presidential elections are a time for taking stock of our nation's life.

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