Astonishing Arrogance vs. Infuriating Cowardice: A Psychologist Analyzes the First Presidential Debate Between Bush and Gore

by | Oct 10, 2000 | POLITICS

If individual rights (or lack thereof) are the fundamental issue in politics, then one should judge political candidates for President based upon their stated adherence to (or lack of adherence to) the preservation and expansion of individual rights — that is, to be free from force, fraud, and the initiation of physical coercion by any […]

If individual rights (or lack thereof) are the fundamental issue in politics, then one should judge political candidates for President based upon their stated adherence to (or lack of adherence to) the preservation and expansion of individual rights — that is, to be free from force, fraud, and the initiation of physical coercion by any other party (government or otherwise).

If either of the current presidential candidates has a grasp of what individual rights are, he failed to demonstrate it with any consistency in the first Presidential debate.

There were a few brief glimmers — likely accidental — of exceptions during the exchange, though nothing I would call hopeful. The liberal, Al Gore, at one point spoke emphatically (and correctly) of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. He even commented that the government has no right to impose this choice on a woman. Of course he’s correct.

But by what earthly contradiction does Al Gore justify his many other impositions of force by the government — to be forcibly herded into Social Security; to be forcibly herded into Medicare (the ultimate HMO); to take on an ever-increasing tax burden (at least if you are successful and wealthy); an ever-expanding government control of education; not to mention his proposal to actually nationalize (with tax money) all elections, and all the rest?

Even worse: by what right does Gore advocate “banning soft money” in campaigns (which is equivalent to censorship, forbidding the right of self-expression) and — even more foreboding — his comments early on in the debate about the need to rid our country of “cultural pollution”?

What on earth is “cultural pollution”? “Cultural pollution” sounds like a made up, smear word that a Nazi or a fascist would say, in hopes of providing an excuse for using government force to eradicate ideas he does not like.

That was the one chilling moment in the whole debate nobody seemed to catch; let’s hope the fact that nobody caught it is not an indication of times to come.

Bush is, on the surface, more moderate on banning soft money — that is, Bush favors banning soft money for corporations, but not for anyone else. This is like saying that businesses have no rights — presumably, because they make money, which is somehow bad — while everyone else (who doesn’t make a lot of money) somehow has the right to contribute to the ideas or candidates of his choice.

This from a supposedly pro-business, pro-capitalist Republican? This cannot be an innocent mistake on the Governor’s part. Whatever motivates his desire to cut taxes, it can’t be love of free enterprise.

The “debates” over Social Security, education and Medicare were equally discouraging. They essentially boiled down to: “My one-size-fits-all-forcibly-imposed system is better than your one-size-fits-all-forcibly imposed system.” (My sighs during this lamentable exchange were far more heavy than any I heard Al Gore direct into his microphone throughout the evening). To somebody — such as myself — who wants to phase out (not expand or “save”) the one-size-fits-all-forcibly imposed, universal government systems of government education, retirement plans, and medicine, the quarreling over figures mattered little.

It is true that Bush threw out a few crumbs in favor of a more limited government — whether by accident or not, I have no idea. It’s incomprehensible to me that any one individual can hold such glaring and lethal contradictions within his mind as the typical Republican. But George W. Bush does.

For example, Bush argued (correctly) that everyone, not just segments of the population “targeted” by politicians, should be able to keep more of their own money. He even pointed out, admirably, that it’s not a President’s job to decide who should or should not be allowed to have their money back.

But he did not go nearly far enough.

He did not point out, for example, that without the wealth creators upon whom we all depend, there would be no economy in the first place. Nor, more importantly, did he argue that an individual who makes a billion dollars has the exact same individual rights as a person who makes $10,000. Your rights do not slowly disappear for each additional dollar you earn. So any value in what he said was lost by Gore’s continuously arrogant assertions that the rich must be forced to surrender more of their income, simply because Al Gore wants the money and feels like redistributing it.

In one incredible statement (not unlike things Bush himself has said in the past, by the way), Gore asserted that we must use our prosperity “wisely.” The arrogance implicit in such a statement — that it is within Gore’s abilities, much less his moral rights — to forcibly take the bulk of what the highest earners earn and spend as he sees fit is absolutely astonishing. Actually, it’s not so astonishing that somebody is arrogant enough to think this way; it’s astonishing that people who think this way increasingly end up becoming President of the United States — in precise proportion to the extent which they think this way! Something is deeply wrong with our culture, psychologically and ethically, if this trend continues.

Bush, to his credit, did make the point that younger people should have limited control over their retirement savings, while people currently eligible for Social Security — who were forced to pay into the system in the first place, all those years — should have their benefits. But once again, Bush seems to have no grasp of the deeper moral issues involved — or if he does, he simply evades them. If so, Bush is much worse, character-wise, than Al Gore.

Al Gore is simply another ignorant and arrogant, garden-variety redistributer of other people’s money. He would have no power at all, except for the fact that too many of us hold the wrong ideas.

Bush, to the observant viewer, was clearly nervous and out of his league throughout most of the debate. I found myself thinking of him as a lightweight compared to the pseudo-confident Gore. Pseudo-confidence is the seeming confidence of a person who’s wrong, but knows he will never be challenged for the fact he is wrong. Clinton had it; Gore clearly has it; and the succession of liberal Democratic presidents to come will have it, until or unless they get some real intellectual challenge from the alleged opposition.

On the surface, you might say Bush’s nervousness is due to the fact that he doesn’t have the years of debating experience that Al Gore has. This is undoubtedly part of it. But I believe there is a deeper issue.

Bush either has half-formed ideas (at best) or, worse, is evading what he knows some of the deeper issues are. For example, he can say, on the one hand, that people should be allowed to keep more of their own money and should be increasingly responsible for their retirement benefits — but then turn around and say that FEMA is a legitimate government agency, and that the federal government (i.e. you and I) should be responsible for everyone else’s disaster relief — including people who make the choice to keep building houses facing the ocean or trailer parks in the middle of well known tornado zones, and choose not to buy their own insurance.

As a result of these awesome (and infuriating) contradictions that even Gore and the debate moderator had to comment on at times, Bush cannot help but come across as nervous and strained. Nervousness and strain are often a sign of simply being afraid to speak in public. But it has to be more than that with Bush.

This is a man who has been Governor of one of the biggest states in the Union for six years. He has appeared extensively on television and throughout the media over the last year — and has more than the average amount of experience with such things, having grown up as the son of a former President and government official. There has to be something more causing his nervousness — and my hypothesis is that it’s the result of half-formed, or even dishonestly formed, conclusions.

Whether you are a politician on the national stage, or just an average Joe, or anything in between, the same rule applies to all of us: inner contradictions create inner conflict. The greater the contradictions, and the more those contradictions are evaded, the greater the psychological consequences (in the form of emotions such as anxiety).

Gore emphasized, throughout the evening — not even seeming to believe it himself — that this is one of the most important elections of our lifetimes; a turning point. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The country, though not nearly what it could, should, or might be, is at peace and enjoying unusual prosperity. Only good ideas, and correct ideas, can maintain and expand this state of affairs. Instead, we have an intellectual-political establishment and a country-at-large more and more dedicated, it seems, to the ideas of soak-the-productive, hatred of success (unless it’s mine), and emotional immaturity.

When and if America grows up, we’ll get some better candidates. But until then, we continue to be forced to choose between astonishing arrogance and infuriating cowardice. In short: between a Gore and a Bush.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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