No third way here -- Gore is a true liberal

June 20, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- William Henry Harrison's 1840 presidential campaign distributed pocket handkerchiefs printed with his purported birthplace, a log cabin. Harrison was born at Virginia's splendid Berkeley plantation.

Al Gore, the only presidential candidate in history who received most of his pre-college schooling in Washington, D.C., launched his campaign in Carthage, Tenn., vowing to confound those who slide "backward." He said, "I believe we can do better." Mr. Gore, a passionate recycler, got that trope by reaching back to John Kennedy's 1960 campaign.

There was some beauty in Mr. Gore's Carthage speech, as in his reference of his remarkable mother, "a poor girl when poor girls were not supposed to dream." However, the speech confirmed Ezra Pound's definition of beauty as "a brief gasp between one cliche and another."

Steel yourself for Gore rhetoric like this Carthage promise to make sure that children sentenced by life's lottery to grow up in the hell of suburbia will experience something more than "desolate stretches of structures and roads."

Perhaps he will explain to the Democratic Party's infantry of public school teachers (at the 1996 Democratic Convention, 11 percent of delegates and alternates were such teachers) why, if they are so fine, we need "revolutionary improvement to our public schools." He recently said the federal grant process should funnel more resources through "faith-based organizations," and in Carthage he spoke of "working more closely with" such organizations. Ohio's Supreme Court recently joined Wisconsin's in affirming the constitutionality of school choice voucher programs that leave it up to parents to choose where the vouchers are redeemed: They can be redeemed at religious schools without violating the First Amendment proscription of "establishment" of religion.

Do the teachers' unions have Mr. Gore on such a short leash that he still opposes such voucher programs that would empower poor parents to make the kind of educational choices that he made?

In Carthage, Mr. Gore lamented "schools where discipline is eroding." In the current issue of the Public Interest quarterly, Abigail Thernstrom argues persuasively that disorder in the schools is partly the result of liberal legislation and court decisions that have multiplied students' rights and limited the ability of schools to exercise disciplinary powers. The legislation and court decisions have unleashed another of Mr. Gore's constituencies, the trial lawyers.

Ms. Thernstrom argues that there is a causal connection behind the correlation of increasing disorder in schools and various legislation and court rulings that "allow students and parents to construe every school disciplinary action as a subject of judicial interpretation."

Litigation can arise from a wide range of school decisions, from searches of students' lockers to the suspension of an unruly student. Unruliness can be construed as arising from an emotional "handicap," and hence the suspension may constitute illegal discrimination against the "disabled." Is Mr. Gore so concerned about disorder that he will question the legislation and court decisions that are exacerbating it?

In Carthage, he promised "to make it easier for parents to save for college tuition." Is that urgent, given that already two-thirds of all high school graduates go directly to college, and more go later (and almost one-third require remedial instruction)?

He promised to "reduce class sizes." It would cost about $12 billion over seven years to reduce grammar school class sizes by one pupil. In the past 45 years, the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen 35 percent. Pupil performances have not -- to say no more -- improved comparably, and often fall markedly short of the performances of Japanese and European pupils taught in much larger classes.

Did Mr. Gore, in Carthage, endorse a bureaucratic nightmare -- federal supervision of private sector pay under some "comparable worth" standards? ("I will fight for this simple principle -- an equal day's pay for an equal day's work.") He certainly endorsed a huge new entitlement: "I believe it is time also to help seniors pay for the prescription drugs they need." (Sixty-five percent of all seniors have private health insurance that covers some drug costs.)

Liberals who have been waiting for Lefty can reasonably read Mr. Gore's speech as an announcement that their long wait is over. In it Mr. Gore distanced himself not only from his patron, the president ("It is our own lives we must master if we're to have the moral authority to guide our children"), but also from the president's pretense that "the era of big government is over."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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