Can They Really Deliver?

Why is it that we expect our presidential candidates to take stands on - and offer detailed plans for - matters over which they have practically no control?

Before we begin our discussion of education, consider for a case-in-point today's Mason-Dixon line of politics: abortion. Within Roe v. Wade's guidelines, the president can't touch it. Then again, without Roe v. Wade's guidelines the president can't touch it, either. That would be the legislature's job, subject to presidential veto (which, in turn, would be subject to an override vote).

Sure, the president can appoint Supreme Court justices who could either affirm or overturn Roe v. Wade. But the record clearly shows the limits of this strategy: In the 27 years since Roe v. Wade, Republican presidents have appointed six justices to the Democrats' two - and still the ruling stands.

We all know from history class that our forefathers were mindful not to vest too much authority in the federal government, especially in its executive branch. The Constitution decrees that the president's authority is limited.

American voters, however, seem to want more from their chief executives.

The recent jockeying on education policy by George W. Bush and Al Gore raises new questions about this gulf between voter expectations and reality. Education has consistently ranked in polls among voters' top concerns this election year. Though traditionally Democratic turf, it was Bush who first made it a campaign centerpiece. Gore has been quick to join the fray. In the past month or so, both major party candidates have spent so much time in classrooms and talking about education policy that it seems, at times, that they are running for school board president. Yet both Bush and Gore must know that the office they are seeking - the presidency of the United States - has influence over a mere 6.6 percent of education spending, or roughly seven cents of each education dollar spent in the country.

Still, it's not hard to figure out how this debate has come to pass. Aside from being high on voter lists, education is perhaps the issue with which Bush is most at home. His wife, Laura, is a teacher, and while governor of Texas Bush has made education at least a rhetorical point of focus. What's more, state test scores have gone up during Bush's tenure, particularly among minority students, though there are those who say this is because would-be failures are pushed out of the system. Nevertheless, rising test scores jibe nicely with Bush's "Reformer with Results" mantra. Finally, education is attractive to Bush precisely because it's usually the Democrats' issue. By getting his educational plan before the voters first, Bush has consigned Gore to a "me too" position on what should be a gimme for him.

Voters generally describe Democratic candidates as much more likely to be effective on education, much as Gore's party is usually seen to "own" other domestic issuessuch as health care and Social Security. Spotlighting education has helped Bush make inroads here. Polls now show that voters trust the candidates about equally on education, which gives the edge to Bush because his progress has come on Democratic ground.

So that's why the issue is getting such big play - what about the candidates' respective plans?

Again, it's hard to get around the fact that there's not much the federal government can do about schools. It can tie federal aid to federally-established goals, but setting curriculum, imposing standards for teacher certification, and shouldering the lion's share of cost are all local and state responsibilities. Just about every presidential attempt to address education has come up against these realities. George Bush senior, it might be remembered, sought to be the "Education President," and Bill Clinton has unveiled any number of education initiatives Â… all without much measurable effect.

Bush, to his credit, addresses this conundrum head on. He has repeatedly sought to dispel notions that he's running for "national principal" or any such post. There is, to be sure, a measure of political necessity in these disclaimers - there's only so far Bush can go with a Republican Party that has regularly called for the outright abolition of the Department of Education.

Bush's plan, to summarize, calls for federal money to be streamlined into a handful of major categories that states can use with broader discretion than in the past. In exchange for this loosening of federal reins, the Bush plan calls for increased accountability through standardized tests to be given at various grade levels. Bush would increase federal education spending, though much less than would Gore and in a more tightly focused way. Literacy would be the one area the Texas governor would try to improve most with federal money.

Gore, meanwhile, seems intent on increasing the federal government's clout by increasing its dollar-share of education funding. He would put $150 billion of federal money into the nation's schools over the next ten years. The cash would go toward making pre-school universally available and, in combination with bond issues, to building new schools. He'd also offer monetary incentives to teachers and schools with aggressive improvement plans.

Lately Gore has also begun to place greater emphasis on accountability, possibly in response to Bush's emphasis on same. Critics, though, point out that the Democratic reliance on teachers' union votes make any Gore calls for real accountability unlikely.

Impartial observers, meanwhile, tend to hold that both candidates' plans fall short. Predictably, they say that Bush doesn't offer enough money and Gore does not demand enough in return for his spending. Educational experts also point out that both Bush and Gore would use standardized tests to measure performance, and the jury's still out as to whether these truly measure anything but skill at taking thtests themselves.

Is the back-and-forth on education, then, mere tilting at windmills? Or, to borrow from another literary classic from the Renaissance Era, is it just sound and fury, signifying nothing?

The truth is that we voters want to hear where the candidates stand on the great debates of our times - whether or not the presidency would allow them to actually affect these large questions in any substantive way. We seem to believe that their positions on "bully pulpit" issues - on abortion, on the South Carolina flag, on education - offer us clarifying insights into their characters.

All good and fine, except politicians know we're looking for these clues, now we're transfixed by them. We tend to focus on them to the exclusion of issues over which the president actually does have firm control, such as foreign policy.

Meanwhile, we would-be political buyers need to beware. What we may think are revealing glimpses of deeply held, long-standing opinions can be deceptive. Gore, for all his newfound zeal on the subject, was practically a no-show on education during his time in the Senate. And those who know Texas point out that the turnaround in education there owes more to reforms suggested by none other than Ross Perot and put in place by Bush's gubernatorial predecessor, Ann Richards. Even Republicans admit that the rise in minority test scores must have a great deal to do with Texas's court-ordered "Robin Hood" plan, which redistributes property-tax revenue from rich communities to poor ones. Bush, it should be noted, has been dead-set against Robin Hood since he took office.

We live in complicated times and we are faced with problems that defy easy solutions. Perhaps the educational program that would benefit America the most is one that would teach voters not to expect the Earth and the Moon from those who, in pursuit of the White House, would promise them.