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Ideology hampers creative solutions

George W. Bush wants to give poor kids in failed schools a $1,500 voucher to use as they see fit. Al Gore wants to spend $115-billion over the next decade to raise teacher pay, fix crumbling schools and make preschool universal.

Why not both?

Gore wants government to fund new private accounts on top of Social Security to help middle- and low-income families build nest eggs for retirement. Bush wants to let workers divert a small piece of their payroll taxes into private accounts to help toward the same end.

Why not both?

As the campaign heads into its decisive phase, it's worth asking that question, if only because the candidates and the press almost certainly won't.

The reason we rarely get a common-sense synthesis of liberal and conservative ideas is that the candidates believe it won't get them elected. Litmus tests imposed by each party's political base force candidates to spurn such notions and embrace incoherence as the price of winning office.

The task for those frustrated by this reality isn't to mock the candidates for it, but to figure out how to liberate them from the ideological shackles of their core supporters. There are only two options. You can persuade the base that it should change its views (i.e., convince teachers unions to embrace voucher trials or flinty Republicans to spend more on schools). Or you can find new groups to bring to the coalition that are as big as the constituency you'd ask a candidate to alienate. This is not easy work.

It's easier simply to make fun of the situation. Take Bush's education speech the other day in Ohio. After solemnly declaring, "I don't want to be the federal superintendent of schools," Bush proceeded to lay out an agenda that made it sound like he was dying to be, well, the federal superintendent of schools.

"We're going to focus on basic education, phonics works," Bush said. "We're going to retrain teachers who don't know how to teach reading. We're going to have K-2 diagnostic tools . . . to figure out whether a kid needs help early in their life; we're going to provide money for extra intensive reading academies."

Bush called for special efforts to recruit math and science teachers. He railed against rowdy kids who ruin learning for others. He called for mentoring and after-school programs, better school safety and character education, and innovative charter schools.

Now, if this isn't a speech a superintendent could make, I don't know what is. The truth is Bush's entire campaign testifies to the fact that he thinks schooling is a national priority requiring national attention and resources. So why does Bush feel he simultaneously has to deny this? Because the base of his party doesn't want a hint of "interference" from Washington. The poor man is left uttering nonsense about "restoring local control to schools," when even the dumbest house pets know there already is local control of schools.

Gore on vouchers is equally insulting to one's intelligence. He rants endlessly about voucher schemes that would "drain money from public schools," as if it weren't a snap to design a voucher plan that would also increase funding for public schools. Then Gore concedes that if he were an inner-city parent he might be for vouchers, too. But fidelity to the union line requires him to tell urban parents they need to sit tight while he tries to fix their public schools _ a delay he'd never tolerate for his own children and which mocks his party's values.

Bashing Bush and Gore for this flimflam is cathartic, of course, but mere criticism doesn't accomplish anything. If candidates can't use it to build a coalition that will elect them, all the sound policy advice in the world is useless. Politics is about making a difference, but before you can do that, you have to acquire power.

For pundits or citizens, the lesson is the same. Throwing bombs from the sidelines isn't enough. Yes, candidates need to speak unpopular truths to "their" groups and pull them along. But when we fail to get the creative policy syntheses we need, it's as much a failure of followership as of leadership.

Matthew Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Los Angeles. His e-mail address is

Matthew Miller; distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate