Al Gore is simply the latest manifestation of some of the reasons I
avoid endorsing political candidates or getting involved in supporting
them. When it comes to oil prices it is simply impossible to know where
he stands or what he might be likely to do if he became president. It’s
not just oil prices, and the Crown Prince is hardly the only political
candidate to shade his positions so much that a voter is literally
buying a pig in a poke. But the case is a bit more dramatic than many.
Al Gore’s history on the issue is reasonably well known. In his
recently reissued and never recanted book, “Earth in the Balance,” an
awful mish-mash of half-understood science, raw emotion and secular
religiosity, Gore calls the internal combustion engine one of nature’s
worst enemies and calls higher taxes on fossil fuels “one of the logical
first steps in changing our policies in a manner consistent with a more
responsible approach to the environment.”
So he’s for higher gasoline prices as a way of discouraging people
from driving, which is viewed as something of an assault on Gaia, right?
Maybe so. Back in 1993 the Clinton-Gore administration proposed a BTU
tax on all fossil fuels that would have increased the federal tax on
gasoline by 11 or 12 cents a gallon. Gore was one of the main champions
within the administration of this tax increase and was publicly
disappointed when it became clear it would fail. The administration went
to its fallback position in the punishing-drivers derby, enacting a 4.3
cent-a-gallon tax that was billed as a “deficit-reduction” measure. It
has increased Americans’ cost of driving by several billion a year, but
perhaps not enough to satisfy Mr. Greengore.
So you might have thought, when gasoline prices started to spike
upward early this summer that Algore would have been delighted — or if
it were impolitic to show delight in public he would at least chuckle to
himself. But, no, he wasn’t. All of a sudden he reached down into his
endless wells of quondam compassion and started shedding tears for
workers and commuters victimized by Big Oil. He’d slap those miscreants
around if he got in office, yes sir.
For enabling “one of the logical first steps in changing our policies
in a manner consistent with a more responsible approach to the
environment”? What’s going on here?
Well, obviously, the man is locked in a race for president, and
whatever his private feelings might be, he knows that most Americans,
including most Americans who consider themselves environmentalists in
some fuzzy kind of way, hate high gasoline prices. It’s one thing to
talk in theoretical terms about phasing out the internal combustion
engine or reducing our earth-raping reliance on fossil fuels, but it’s
quite another to pay at the pump.
So Gore is a hypocrite and so are many Americans, including many who
think they are environmentalists. What else is new?
The problem for somebody tempted to support one of these clowns
through a vote in November goes much deeper than that. The problem is
that Gore is literally and thoroughly unpredictable on important policy
matters. Will a President Gore be Greengore or the Scourge of Big Oil
and friend of low gasoline prices? I have no idea and I seriously doubt
anyone who claims to have an insight.
I know, I know. Politics is the art of the possible. People might
come into it with strong convictions, even a firm and relatively
coherent ideological position, then find themselves in a
rough-and-tumble battle with other people who also have convictions and
beliefs. In a majority-vote system where one side or persuasion doesn’t
have a clear majority, compromise is inevitable. The major American
political parties have always been coalitions rather than tight
ideological groupings. You might be able to determine from a
politician’s public utterances and record what he might like to get done
once in office, but while a direction might be discernible the result
will be unpredictable.
There’s also the fact that any president, once in office, will face
situations and decisions nobody could have predicted before the
election. It would be unrealistic to expect to know in advance how a
leader will resolve a situation nobody has had to face before.
True enough, but it shouldn’t be unrealistic to have a glimmer or an
inkling about the type of decision he might be likely to make, about the
principles and convictions that would guide him. To stay with the oil
example, assuming for the moment that it is desirable to reduce gasoline
prices, there are two general ways to go.
One could try price controls and the threat of them to try to bully
OPEC and the oil companies into reducing prices or increasing
production. Or one could rely on marketplace forces, perhaps reducing
regulations or restrictions that hamper competitive forces, maybe even
cutting taxes to get an immediate short-term reduction. One could
encourage American refiners to “cheat” on the OPEC cartel by seeking
members willing to sell more under the table.
How far one might be able to go in one direction or the other — more
regulation and control or more reliance on competition and the market –
might well be influenced or even determined by political and economic
factors beyond the control of any politician. But it shouldn’t be
unreasonable to expect candidates at least to give us an inkling of
which direction they would prefer in the event of a problem or situation
that seems to demand attention.
In the case of Al Gore, we simply don’t know. We might be pretty sure
that his fundamental instinct is to push for more controls and higher
taxes. But he has been involved in the Democratic Leadership Council,
the supposedly moderate New Democrat group that has at least some
understanding of the importance of market forces and the limits of
political control over economic activities.
Tom Bethell, in the October issue of the American Spectator, claims
that “The general level of economic understanding has improved. Even Al
Gore’s advisers know that tax increases and massive new economic
regulations would harm, not help, the economy. They would also
understand that you can’t just pump in new money without causing
inflation and higher interest rates. These lessons have been learned
quite recently, perhaps in the last 15 years. Therefore a President
Gore, horrible though it is to contemplate that prospect, would not be
able to do much. He certainly would not be able to implement the
draconian energy regulations required by the Kyoto global warming
treaty, and he probably wouldn’t try.”
So maybe Gore really is a market-oriented New Democrat — or at least
one who understands he is constrained by market realities — who is
simply pumping out the populist and environmentalist rhetoric to keep
the dimbulbs among the lefties from bolting to Nader? There’s evidence
to support the idea. But I don’t know anybody who has made an ironclad
case. There is also evidence that Gore is really a hard-core lefty
populist at heart who has simply bowed to opinion polls to guide his
constant makeovers and moderate posturing.
The upshot for the voter concerned about policy, however, is that
there is no way — simply no way at all — to predict what a President
Gore’s first impulse might be if confronted, say, by a continuing
increase in oil prices. Would he jawbone OPEC, invade Iraq, push price
controls, release U.S. reserves for production, cut taxes, or let the
problem play itself out? I have some inklings, but nothing so strong as
Let’s not confine ourselves to the devious Democrat. Does anybody
have the slightest idea what Dubya Bush’s core convictions are, or
whether he has any? In public rhetoric he’s been a compassionate
conservative, a reformer with results, an advocate of real programs for
real people. The problem is that none of those glittering generalities
has much substance.
Some say Dubya is a carbon copy of his father, the oldfangled
Establishment Republican who derided Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economics,”
whose instinct is to go along to get along so long as good ol’ boys with
proper pedigrees are in charge, who thinks conservatives are slightly
cracked though he’s willing to seek their votes. Some say he is more
conservative than his father, some say less. Some say he doesn’t have
much in the way of core convictions at all, that he’s seeking office to
restore family honor after his Poppy got his butt kicked by that upstart
He’s talked about private-account-oriented reform of Social Security,
which takes a certain amount of guts (though less than 10 years ago),
but would he push it if in office? He’s talked about tax cuts, but how
enthusiastic is he? He says the proper pro-life platitudes, but he
doesn’t emphasize the position. Does he really care? Does he have a clue
about foreign policy?
I pay fairly close attention and I don’t know.
Voting for either of these characters is a bit like putting your
money in a slot machine. You might get lucky and win a jackpot, and you
might get enough occasional small payouts to keep you from walking away.
But it’s more likely that over time you’ll eventually lose all the money
you’re willing to put in.
The main thing is that there’s no rational way to analyze the chances
or the odds. Politicians in modern America shift with the wind — or
with a complex combination of interest group pressure, polls,
contributor interests and a touch of ideological predilection. They
can’t be predicted. You’re rolling the dice to support any of them.