Spinmeisters do great job in sweetening candidates' promises, and we may easily forget the election rule #1: read between the lines.
Even without the spin and twist, what contenders proclaim as a top priority tends to evaporate as soon as they finish decorating their new office. Take compassionate conservativism, for example. In order to win the swing voters, George W. Bush made sure nobody could mistake him for a regular, run-off-the-mill conservative. When the terrorists hit the Twin Towers, the president could no longer afford being meek. He got an enemy to defeat.
Four years later, another election night is approaching, and no matter what channel you tune in to, all you can get is fairy tales. It's the undecided who have to be won, and the campaign teams are eager to serve Big Government desserts. Rhetorical differences notwithstanding, the candidates aren't selling what globalized markets demand: small and flexible government that can quickly react to change. A spectator from across the Great Pond has trouble telling who is less statist.
With one exception: jobs.
Liberals have slammed Bush for telling the unemployed what they desperately need to hear - get an education, stupid. Democrats adore education; they display their Yale degrees with the same pride hunters reserve for their trophies. One has to wonder why the President's advice doesn't sound right to them.
Europe is giving its vast masses generous welfare perks, and few hope that leftist leaders who congregate in Hungary this week will finally notice the connection between supply and demand. As Mark W. Smith put it in his Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy handbook, if you reward it, you get more of it. European workers know they can have fun in the social safety net, and when you add troubled public schools to the equation, you'll realize they have neither a compelling motive nor the means to get back on their feet.
John Kerry has a plan for everybody. He says to the unemployed that he'll bring their jobs back from India. Tax credits for new jobs are supposed to offset the benefits of manufacturing overseas for one-tenth of the cost. A high-school kid with a calculator can debunk this fantasy in a minute. Unless Kerry assumes the voters won't do the math, he must be hoping they want to postpone the reality check that was due in the 90s. They may. And if they do, America has a distinct chance of narrowing the EU's lead in the unemployment rate.
Bush's simple answer is ultimately the only right answer to the laid-off worker's question, "What am I supposed to do now?" Go to school, learn a new trade, and make sure your choice is in tune with market trends. The government can help a little but the responsibility is yours.
Why is that undesirable for liberals? Look behind the wall of promises. Kerry's plan includes a broader access to the unemployment benefits. That would create the most loyal constituency; dependent on the caring hand of the government, unmotivated, irresponsible. Do you want to see the ends? Book a flight to Frankfurt or Marseilles. When governments run out of money, they can't rollback the New Deal they've been so proud of. Masses won't let them, and conservatives have to take over to clean up the mess.
George Bush is no Goldwater of the 21st century but he's proved he can grow in office. The biggest challenge to his capacities as president was September 11. A second term could be both quieter and more demanding. He should work on his Ownership Society theme a little more, then use it as a marketing brand for the project of removing obstacles that are blocking the American economy from going at full speed. Embrace outsourcing, welcome qualified workers from overseas, push for international trade agreements that actually promote free trade and work both ways.
It's unclear whether Americans are ready for "more of the same" or "4 more years," depending on who's holding the microphone. Both statements are wrong in a way. It cannot be the same since 2004 is most definitely not 2000, and it shouldn't be just 4 years of neoconservative revolution but a beginning of a long run towards more liberty, economical freedom and - when everyone's ready - small government.
Who's got more guts to spearhead a truly progressive agenda? For many years, Democrats have marketed themselves as elements of change that is, by definition, progressive. If a patient woke up in October 2004 after having spent thirty years in a coma, he wouldn't know what to think. A conservative who liberated two nations in his first term, and a liberal who would trade their freedom for being more respected in Europe. History has a sense of humor.