Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2000 / 17 Tishrei 5760
Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his aides believe that Vice President Al Gore can't be trusted to tell the truth. GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney has said as much on the campaign trail, but he went silent on the point in Thursday's debate.
Similarly, the Gore campaign thinks that under Bush the environment and public health in Texas have deteriorated, but the Democratic veep candidate, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), didn't touch that issue. The two veep candidates essentially repeated the arguments and counterarguments that the presidential campaigns have been making on the issues over the past weeks, but they utterly lacked the combative spirit that the presidential candidates showed in their face-off.
Citizens viewing the debates must have the impression that all four candidates are presidential, but my guess is that they are mightily confused about who's right on any number of issues.
Now it's up to PBS' Jim Lehrer in future debates to get the candidates to clear up the differences and also to get them to say what they really think about each other.
In the first presidential debate, Lehrer did ask Gore about his statement that Bush lacks the experience to be president. Gore denied he made such a statement, but subsequent fact-checking has established that he did. Lehrer should ask him about that.
He also should ask Gore about his various other misstatements -- tallied up by Richard Berke in The New York Times on Friday -- that he visited fire disaster sites in Texas in 1998, that schoolchildren lack desks in Sarasota, Fla., and that he "took a risk" by talking to Russian leaders about Kosovo when the talks were scheduled by others.
Besides his Texas record, Bush should be forced to defend his math. He maintains that he'd devote just a quarter of anticipated budget surpluses to tax cuts, but independent calculations show it's more like one-third. They also demonstrate that his Social Security reforms and spending programs would more than use up the surplus.
Bush needs to be asked, particularly, about how he'd make up the "transition cost" of his Social Security plan -- the $1 trillion the government would not collect in taxes when workers are allowed to invest their money in the stock market.
On tax cuts, Gore has been forced to quit charging that Bush would hand more money in tax cuts to the top 1 percent of taxpayers than he'd spend on education and other programs; but independent analysts say the very rich would get more than 10 times the tax break that poor families would receive.
Gore, meantime, has been able to successfully declare that Bush is relying on a partisan Senate Budget Committee staff analysis demonstrating that he'd overspend the anticipated surplus.
However, there are other analyses that show the same. Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan though moderately conservative group, calculates Gore's spending at $2.2 trillion over five years -- $800 billion more than the anticipated surplus.
On education, an important issue to voters, there is a real difference of opinion between the two campaigns over whether the past eight years have been a period of "recession" or progress.
In Thursday night's debate, Lieberman asserted that the National Assessment of Education Progress showed that U.S. reading and math scores had improved during the Clinton years.
Yet that is not what actual NAEP numbers suggest. More or less, as the Bush campaign asserts, the scores have been flat or have fallen slightly for the past eight years, and U.S. scores remain significantly below those in other industrialized countries.
On defense preparedness, even though it is not a top concern of voters, Gore needs to be asked if it isn't true that spending declined during the early Clinton years before it began rising again under pressure from the Republican Congress.
Bush needs to be asked about the Gore assertions that the Democrat anticipates spending $100 billion more on preparedness than he does over the next 10 years, and that Bush is planning to deprive the services of the next round of procurement upgrades.
Whether or not any such questions will affect the race is open to debate. Last week's polls provide a confusing pattern. The Gallup poll showed Gore jumping to an 11-point lead. But an ABC News poll showed Bush ahead by 7 points after the week's debates.
The Reuters-NBC poll showed Gore up by 5, while the Voter.com Battleground survey had Bush ahead by 2.
Various electoral vote counts are also at odds, depending on how razor-close Michigan and Florida are counted.
What remains clear is that about 10 percent of the electorate is undecided. The group is 65 percent female, 50 percent independent and tends not to be college educated.
In focus groups, undecideds say they are waiting for more discussion of the issues before they make up their minds. The debaters and their moderator should give this to them.
In the end, though, my guess is that the undecideds are waiting for a defining moment -- a major revelation, a gaffe or a
10/03/00: What questions should be debated?