By AL GORE
ASHVILLE -- There has always been a debate over the destiny of this nation between those who believed they were entitled to govern because of their station in life, and those who believed that the people were sovereign. That distinction remains as strong as ever today. In every race this November, the question voters must answer is, How do we make sure that political power is used for the benefit of the many, rather than the few?
For well over a year, the Bush administration has used its power in the wrong way. In 2000, I argued that the Bush-Cheney ticket was being bankrolled by "a new generation of special interests, power brokers who would want nothing better than a pliant president who would bend public policy to suit their purposes and profits." Some considered this warning anti-business. It was nothing of the sort. I believe now, as I said then, that "when powerful interests try to take advantage of the American people, it's often other businesses that are hurt in the process" — most of all, smaller companies that play by the rules.
This view was not partisan. It was based on a plain reading of the history of Republican governance under Presidents Reagan and Bush. And every passing day demonstrates that it was merely the truth.
I believe Bill Clinton and I were right to maintain, during our 1992 campaign, that we should fight for "the forgotten middle class" against the "forces of greed." Standing up for "the people, not the powerful" was the right choice in 2000. And, in fact, it is the Democratic Party's meaning and mission. The suggestion from some in our party that we should no longer speak that truth, especially at a time like this, strikes me as bad politics and, worse, wrong in principle.
This struggle between the people and the powerful was at the heart of every major domestic issue of the 2000 campaign and is still the central dynamic of politics in 2002. The choice, not just in rhetoric but in reality, was and still is between a genuine prescription drug benefit for all seniors under Medicare — or a token plan designed to trick the voters and satisfy pharmaceutical companies. The White House and its allies in Congress have just defeated legislation that would have fulfilled the promises both parties made in 2000.
The choice was and still is between a real patients' bill of rights — or doing the bidding of the insurance companies and health maintenance organizations. Here again: promise made, promise broken. The choice was and still is an environmental policy based on conservation, new technologies, alternative fuels and the protection of natural wonders like the Alaskan wilderness — or walking away from the grave challenge of global warming, doing away with Superfund cleanups and giving in on issue after issue to those who profit from pollution. And the choice, even more urgently today, is between protecting Social Security or raiding it and then privatizing it so that the trust fund can be used to finance massive tax cuts that primarily benefit the very rich.
The economic debate, now as then, is fundamentally about principle. The problem is not that Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney picked the wrong advisers or misunderstood the technical arguments, but that their economic purpose was and is ideological: to provide $1.6 trillion in tax giveaways for the few while pretending they were for the many, and manipulating the numbers to make it appear that the budget surplus would be preserved. It was pre-Enron political accounting.
For them, incredibly, it is also post-Enron accounting. And the result is the replacement in one year of a surplus with another massive deficit.
It's not just the stock market that has gone down. It is confidence in the honesty of our government. If President Bush wants to pursue honesty and integrity in the White House he should make public the names of the energy company lobbyists who met with Vice President Cheney to help draft energy and environmental legislation, and he should call for the release of the Securities and Exchange Commission files on the controversy surrounding his role in certain stock sales.
But what is far more important than the pursuit of a few bad apples in the White House is the need to recognize that what has been put at risk is nothing less than the future of democratic capitalism. And it cannot be rejuvenated unless the people and the politicians focus on the question: What is good for the whole?
Ideally, President Bush should lead that effort. For the president is the only person in our constitutional framework charged with representing all Americans. Presidents of both parties in the past have risen to meet that responsibility when the interests of the people were at risk from the unrestrained greed of the powerful. A Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, met that challenge, even though it earned him the hatred of his patrician social peers as a "traitor to his class." A Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, prevented the magnates of his day from consolidating their grip on both political and economic power.
We are at such a moment again. Uncommon power has combined with uncommon greed to create immense deceptions and losses. Millions of average Americans have been victimized. So have thousands of honest American corporations and the people who manage them, own stock in them, and depend upon them for a livelihood, for sending their children to college and for their retirement.
A major correction is needed in the course of our nation. It is needed first and foremost in the composition of the next Congress. We need a majority of men and women who will not flinch from the task at hand. Now is a time for truth and courage. And now is the time for all Americans to stand up to the powerful on behalf of the people.
Al Gore, vice president from 1993 to 2001, teaches at Fisk University and Middle Tennessee State University