What They Dodged

Article excerpt

AT LAST, THE ISSUES. THE showdown in Hartford was actually pretty substantive, with lots of discussion of taxes and the role of government. The weird sideshows--how did Al D'Amato get mentioned more often than Newt Gingrich?--were kept to a minimum. Still, lots of issues at the first presidential debate were given short shrift. These are the big questions that really affect how people live. And when it came to the bottom line, Clinton and Dole either ducked or distorted. It's fitting, then, that the two men chose to square off in the capital of America's insurance industry. Both men have played it safe, risked little. Had they been bold, these are the issues they would have illuminated instead of fudged.

Health care: It's hard to believe that only two years have passed since Clinton's health-reform plan died in Congress. Back then, the topic dominated the national conversation. Sure, health care was mentioned often during the debate. You might have gotten the impression that with all the talk, and the passage of such laws as the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill-which allows insurance to be carded from job to job-the problem has been solved. It hasn't. Though Clinton and Dole both alluded to the enduring problem of the uninsured, for instance, neither offered a convincing solution. The uninsured are the people who usually turn to emergency rooms for care, which then drives up the costs for everyone else. The president, still smarting from the collapse of Hillary Clinton's ambitious plan, is too chastened to highlight the subject. And Dole's "medical savings accounts" and tax credits are fine for the well-off, but won't bring the vast majority of the uninsured in from the cold.

Rogue nukes: What if crazies get hold of nuclear weapons? This could be the issue facing the next president. Although the Soviet Union is gone, the threat of nuclear weapons remains real: rogue nukes in the hands of outlaw nations or fanatics. The Clinton administration, as the president said, has made some progress on this front, notably by slowing the development of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. But the larger issue of stray nukes--available in Russia, wanted in Iraq and Iran--isn't getting detailed scrutiny. True, Bob Dole is touting a ballistic-missile defense to guard against attacks. Just one problem: terrorists could one day deliver nuclear devices in a minivan or briefcase, immune to any kind of missile defense.

Entitlements for the elderly: Give Dole and Clinton some credit here. Neither has completely ignored the phenomenal growth in entitlement spending on the old. Clinton took a risk and raised taxes on more comfortable Social Security recipients. Dole supported major curbs in the growth of Medicare spending. (And, naturally, each man used the debate to turn the other's act of courage into a mark of shame.)

But there is still a lot of work to be done on entitlements that neither Clinton nor Dole has been willing to acknowledge. The aging population will overwhelm Medicare and Social Security in the next century. Meanwhile, both candidates have relied on a famous Washington gambit: each suggests setting up a commission to "study" the problem. …