The Real Stuff: Main Event: As the Debates Begin, Look for Sharp Exchanges between Gore and Bush on Tax Cuts, Retirement, Education, Energy, Prescription Drugs-And a Few Surprises. How to Tell Substance from Spin

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Real Stuff: Main Event: As the Debates Begin, Look for Sharp Exchanges between Gore and Bush on Tax Cuts, Retirement, Education, Energy, Prescription Drugs-And a Few Surprises. How to Tell Substance from Spin


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


GOVERNOR BUSH: You're a shameless flip-flopper on the Petroleum Reserve.

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: And you and Cheney are the oiliest ticket ever.

BUSH: Look who's talking. Your family's got Occidental Petroleum money.

GORE: That's my mother's stock, not mine. First you attack my dog, now my mother.

BUSH: Well, you lied about your dog.

GORE: Actually my dog Shiloh is right here in the audience to bark about how much he pays for his drug prescriptions.

Well, we can hope, anyway. And even if it's "wistful thinking" (as George W. Bush said in another context last week) to believe that the presidential debates could reach this level of smack-down fun, we're likely to get a series of sharp-elbowed, substantive exchanges. The issues this year are less earthshaking than, say, during the cold war. But both of the major-party candidates have been more specific than most of their predecessors. They are certain to square off on five divisive issues: tax cuts, retirement, prescription-drug benefits, education and energy policy. Beyond that lie scores of other concerns that might come up, from FDA approval of the abortion pill (Gore for, Bush against) to allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons (Bush for, Gore against).

Politics hasn't always been so specific. During the 1968 campaign, for instance, Richard Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War, but he didn't say how. This time round, the airwaves and e-mail boxes are full of more hows and whys, facts and counterfacts, than ever before. We have a very specific idea of what the next president will at least try to do, if he can get Congress to go along.

Beyond the sound bites, the candidates have deeply differing approaches toward how the country governs itself. Bush basically believes that freedom means the American people should get to spend the surplus bounty of their toil any damn way they please. And he thinks it's only logical that those who pay the most in taxes should get the most relief.

Gore believes there's nothing logical about that at all. He essentially argues that the country has reached a consensus that education, debt reduction and a secure retirement are desirable social ends, and should structure the expenditure of its treasure accordingly. That is what citizens of a democracy do--they settle on certain priorities and then fund them. So, in the age-old tension of the American system, Bush leans more toward freedom; Gore tilts more toward democracy. Those views are squarely in the traditions of their parties.

On some key issues--including trade, the death penalty, the drug war, welfare reform--the differences evaporate. On others, each candidate has moved toward his opponent to blur the distinction. Gore got the message on the inheritance tax, so he's now for raising the amount exempted to $5 million to protect family farms and small businesses. (Bush would eliminate the tax entirely.) Bush, in turn, got the message on prescription drugs and cobbled together a plan after the conventions.

With their ideological role reversals, Gore and Bush sometimes seem like Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in "Trading Places." Gore, pushing for the reduction of the national debt, says he's the "fiscally conservative" candidate; Bush, departing from Republican orthodoxy to support more federal involvement in education, talks repeatedly about "compassion" and his "heart."

But on most issues, both the philosophical and the specific differences are profound. The central fault line is taxes. At $1.6 trillion over 10 years (including extra interest payments), Bush's tax cut, which reduces marginal rates from top to bottom, is more than three times larger than Gore's targeted tax incentives. Bush will say during debates that "it's your money, not the government's, to spend." He'll note that his plan takes the poor off the federal income-tax rolls altogether, and that middle-class families would get a couple thousand dollars back from the Treasury right away--mostly from doubling the child credit to $1,000 per child. …

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