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In democracies, decadent political movements explain their defeats in terms of tactics: Our message is fine but our messengers are flawed. Conservatives said that after their 1992 and 1996 presidential defeats. In advanced stages of decrepitude, political movements ascribe their frustrations to the electorates' intellectual shortcomings and moral corruption. Some conservatives who are disappointed with this year's presidential campaign are close to espousing "blame Americans first" conservatism.

Just six years ago the 1994 congressional elections sent to Washington a wave of legislators vowing radically to reduce Washington's post-New Deal role. But if today's polls are indicative, an electoral majority is prepared to vote for Al Gore's promise of a substantial expansion of that role.

Especially now that George W. Bush has abandoned the folly of running against someone not on the ballot (Bill Clinton), he is conducting a reasonably competent and highly substantive campaign. He is currently behind because, so far, a majority of voters are buying what Gore is selling, which are plans for an even more omnipresent and omniprovident government. Yet many conservatives cling to the comforting thought that the public either is being courted badly by Bush, or has been rendered contemptible by addiction to government.

This year some conservatives are exaggerating the ideological clarity of the choice. Consider economic policy. America's savings rate is negative, consumer debt is at a record high and unemployment is so low that across the nation there are new restaurants that cannot open because workers cannot be found. In this context, Bush's proposal for a $1.3 trillion tax cut (over 10 years) would further stimulate consumption, probably prompting a rise in interest rates, which would crimp private sector investment and further reduce the (hypothetical) surplus by increasing the cost of servicing government's debt. The cost was $263 billion in 1999, 15 percent of federal spending, almost 3 percent of GDP.

Gore's proposal to pay the national debt down to zero by 2012 would stimulate private-sector investment, perhaps producing the productivity increase needed if the economy, with fewer and fewer workers relative to retirees, is to avoid being suffocated by the burden of financing pensions and medical care for the elderly.

Robert M. Solow, Nobel Prize-winning economist from MIT, argues in the New York Review of Books that Treasury bonds -- public debt -- displace corporate securities in investors' portfolios. As the government retires bonds, presumably "the former bondholders will want to reacquire some earning assets," such as corporate securities, rather than hold cash or increase consumption.

So Bush, supposed friend of corporate America, would increase families' disposable incomes. Gore, supposed friend of "working families," would fatten corporate ledgers. But regarding the welfare state, there is no fundamental difference.

In 1976, running against the conservative Sen. James Buckley, Pat Moynihan exclaimed that some people "simply never accepted the New Deal. Didn't Franklin Roosevelt settle this issue once and for all? I mean, do we really have to go over it again?" We did after 1980 and 1994. However, perhaps never again, particularly if Gore wins.

But Bush, too, accepts the premise of America's welfare state. His proposal for partial privatization of Social Security and his more market-oriented approach to a prescription drug entitlement are markedly superior to Gore's proposals. But the clear premise of Bush's campaign is this: Regarding two of life's largest anxieties, illness and old age, Americans' individualism is merely nostalgic and rhetorical. Americans accept the ethic of common provision.

Conservatives may regret this, but regret is not a political strategy. And the core conservative virtue is prudence, which means facing facts and understanding practicalities. In response to the Soviet suppression of the 1953 uprising in East Germany, Bertolt Brecht wrote, "Would it not be easier . . . for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?" That is not a practical program for conservatives.

Washington Post Writers Group

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