SYNOPSIS: Gore vs. Bush is a choice between Professionals and Courtiers
Suppose that George W. Bush pulls it off — that he gets to the White House on the strength of chads and butterflies. Will he make good on his boast of being a "uniter, not a divider"? His behavior since election night is a bad omen; it suggests that what Mr. Bush means is that everyone should unite to give him what he wants. But there are also other, subtler indicators of how Mr. Bush might behave in office. Alas, they are no more encouraging. Consider, in particular, his revealed taste in economic advisers.
Call it the case of the two Larrys. One Larry is Lawrence Summers, secretary of the Treasury and the dominant economist of the entire Clinton administration. The other is Lawrence Lindsey, the lead economic adviser to Mr. Bush during the campaign, and widely expected to take a central role if Mr. Bush manages to reach the Oval Office.
On casual inspection the two men can seem remarkably similar. Both once taught at Harvard; both served for a time on the staff of the Reagan- era Council of Economic Advisers; both began their careers working on tax issues.
But a closer look reveals them as utterly different.
Mr. Summers had a meteoric career as an academic researcher, publishing scores of papers in professional journals and establishing himself as one of the country's leading economists, before he joined the Clinton administration. This nonpolitical career culminated in 1993 when he won the John Bates Clark Medal, a coveted award for under-40 economists that is somewhat harder to get than a Nobel prize.
Mr. Lindsey took a different path. Although he taught at Harvard following a three-year stint in the Reagan administration, his heart doesn't seem to have been in it; he published few academic papers, instead putting out a book extolling Ronald Reagan's tax cuts. In 1989 he left academia, taking a job in the Bush White House; in 1991 he was appointed by the elder Mr. Bush to the Federal Reserve Board, to the surprise of many who had expected the appointment of a Republican economist with stronger credentials. He now works at a conservative think tank.
The point of this comparison is not that Mr. Summers is smarter than Mr. Lindsey; Mr. Summers is brilliant (ask him, he'll tell you), but Mr. Lindsey is no dummy. Nor is it merely that Mr. Lindsey is a partisan ideologue. The point is that Bill Clinton turned for advice to a strong, independent professional economist, who would have been an important player whatever his politics. Mr. Bush has turned to an economist whose career has been entirely associated with his political orientation. And more specifically, Mr. Lindsey's career has depended on the patronage of the Bush family.
So the younger Mr. Bush's decision to elevate Mr. Lindsey above the many Republican economists who do have reputations independent of their politics says something. Not, I think, that Mr. Bush is a fanatical ideologue himself — though Mr. Lindsey is much more partisan than any of Mr. Clinton's economists. Mainly, it says that Mr. Bush values loyalty above expertise, perhaps that he has a preference for advisers whose personal fortunes are almost entirely bound up with his own.
John Ellis, the political analyst now notorious for his inappropriate role at Fox News — he not only gave Mr. Bush confidential poll information, but was arguably the man behind the premature decision of the networks to call the election for Mr. Bush — once declared that "I am loyal to my cousin, Governor George Bush of Texas. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone else outside my immediate family." Most people would be embarrassed at that sort of declaration; Mr. Bush seems to take it as his due.
Perhaps this explains Mr. Bush's post-election willingness to let his people use any argument, exploit any political advantage to secure victory, no matter how much it might taint the prize. Who in Mr. Bush's circle would dare tell him to accept the possibility of losing?
And this suggests a terrible prospect. Soon we may have a president who lost the popular vote, who won the electoral vote only after bitter controversy, who needs to act with unprecedented humility and discretion to avoid ripping the country apart. But he will have surrounded himself with obsequious courtiers.
Originally published in The New York Times, 11.19.00