Bush weak in the face of Gore attacks

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 9, 2000

Al Gore's compulsive condescension, deceitfulness, rudeness, pedantry and general obnoxiousness concealed George W. Bush's depressingly listless performance in the first presidential debate of the season. On the merits, Gore won the debate but gained little if any traction in the polls due to his intense personal unpleasantness.

While Bush passed the "drool test," confirming that he is not the woefully unprepared Neanderthal his detractors make him out to be, he bested Gore only in a couple of exchanges and seemed to be struggling to keep up most of the rest of the time. Conventional explanations by Bush supporters attribute this to several reasons. First, Gore is a bully and Bush is a gentleman, which is why the vice-president trampled all over the rules and not only talked over his opponent but the moderator. Second, Gore does have superior verbal skills and a better mastery of statistical detail. Third, Gore has debated far more frequently than Bush and was thus more at ease.

All of these explanations contain more than a modicum of truth, yet none of them really captures the essence of why Bush did so poorly. Indeed, he fared as he did for the same reason many Republicans, including Bob Dole and his own father, do not always come across well in debates. And why some Republicans fare even worse at governance.

Bush accepted most of Gore's premises and attempted to engage him on those grounds, which is a prescription for losing. Republicans have the supremely self-defeating tendency of criticizing liberal proposals and advancing conservative programs while accepting rather than challenging liberal premises. The end result is simply political incoherence.

Consider for example the lengthy exchange about prescription drugs for seniors. Nowhere did Bush question Gore's premise that, in the words of National Review's Jonah Goldberg, "the next president of the United States will be the one who can unload free prescription drugs for old folks the fastest." He did not challenge Gore's notion that all seniors cannot afford prescription drugs and should be entitled to federal benefits regardless of their own income and ability to pay. He did not challenge the idea that it is appropriate to regressively tax the young woman who works two waitressing jobs while attending college part-time to provide medicines for well-to-do seniors who own their own homes and have retired to Florida. Least surprisingly, he did not ask where in the Constitution Gore even found authorization to tax the American people for prescription drug coverage.

The end result was that Bush was forced to argue that his plan was just as generous as Gore's, with passing references to his preference for competition-driven solutions to drug costs as opposed to Gore's more bureaucratic approach. The most obvious argument for the governor's plan, which he of course did not make, is that he would increase prescription drug coverage for seniors (especially poor seniors) beyond its current levels, but in a more fiscally responsible manner than the vice-president, making promises that could conceivably be kept.

When it comes down to who will spend the most money on the most generous entitlement program, Bush cannot win. His plan will not spend the most money, or offer the most complete cradle-to-grave coverage or entail the greatest expansion of the government's role in health care provision. Even if it did, he would forfeit his right to win in any principled sense and probably still would not be afforded the appropriate credit, because Gore is the Democrat in this race. Everyone trusts the Democrats to spend more on these sorts of social programs.

Bush didn't really challenge Gore on abortion either. He muttered about how he hoped that RU-486 would be safe for the women who used it, quietly said he disagreed with the FDA's ruling and then promised earnestly not to do anything about it if elected. He gave his typical vague assurances about the day when everyone is "protected by law and welcomed in to life," without specifying how he as president might hasten that day's arrival.

He allowed the entire discussion to sound like abortion was something remotely unpleasant he disapproved of, like chewing tobacco, without ever explaining why. This enabled Gore to center the debate on the "woman's right to choose" (without ever providing any detail as to what is being chosen, or even mentioning the word "abortion"). Gore even was able to sound somewhat libertarian, by stressing the right of women to control their destinies free of government control.

Bush could have asked Gore what new developments had caused him to change his view (written in a 1987 constituent letter) that abortion was "arguably the taking of a human life." He could have asked what about abortion makes Bill Clinton claim it should be "rare" and Hillary Clinton say (as she did in a 1994 Newsweek interview) that it was "wrong." Bush should have at the very least emphasized that the "health exception" Gore insists should be included in a partial-birth abortion ban would, under the terms of Doe vs. Bolton, include criteria so amorphous as to render the entire legislation meaningless. Most Americans on some level see abortion as violently taking the life of a baby – a truly pro-life candidate would do well to expose the scientific evidence for that view as well as to stress abortion alternatives that make legal protection for the unborn appear more realistic and less callous to women.

From this discussion came an equally depressing exchange about the Constitution and the rule of law. Bush did not challenge Gore's claim that the Constitution is a document that "grows" and therefore adapts to changing circumstances. A Constitution that changes to suit the whims of the political class and the prejudices of a numerical majority defeats the entire purpose of the rule of law. The written law duly made by elected legislators in our constitutional republic binds judges; judges are not free to read new meaning into the Constitution to make new laws as they see fit.

Perhaps because Bush is no more interested in constitutional principles than Gore, and just as reliant on a "living document" to give constitutional legitimacy to his spending proposals. The majority of Gore's proposed agenda is not just bad policy and sheer folly, but clearly unconstitutional. Bush is only marginally better, which is why he was unable to point out that while Gore pretends to revere the Framers, he has no intention of governing within the system of federalism, separated powers and limited government they devised. Bush couldn't even muster the following defense of his professed preference for judges who will be strict constructionists: While Gore attacks Antonin Scalia for being a "code word" for overturning Roe v. Wade, he voted to confirm him in 1986.

Nowhere was Bush more depressing than in his unconvincing defenses of his tax cuts, which Gore has been attacking throughout the entire campaign just as the Clinton-Gore administration has attacked every serious tax-cut proposal of the past eight years. Gore's assertion that 40 percent of Bush's tax cut would go to the top 1 percent is indeed "fuzzy math" but it also fails to recognize that this same percentile pays 33 percent of federal income taxes.

Bush's tax plan would actually increase the share of the income tax burden shouldered by the top 20 percent of income-earners from roughly 61 percent to more than 64 percent. The top 50 percent of income earners already pay 96 percent of income taxes, with the bottom 50 percent supplying just 4 percent of the revenues.

Moreover, the biggest tax cuts actually go to middle-class Americans. A family of four earning $35,000 would receive a 100 percent reduction of their income tax burden. The bottom marginal income tax rate would drop from 15 percent to 10 percent. The penalty couples pay for simply being married would be substantially alleviated.

Bush's plan is superior to Gore's plan for several reasons. First, Gore would exclude 50 million Americans, more than 40 percent of the entire tax-paying population. His plan is so complex that many of those would qualify would be unlikely to realize this and never reap any benefit (a point that the substantially more able Dick Cheney mentioned while cleaning Joe Lieberman's clock in the vice-presidential debate). Finally, Gore's targeted tax credits provide absolutely no incentive enhancement. Indeed, his means tests would penalize taxpayers who increase their incomes. Bush's focus on lower marginal rates increases incentives to work, save and invest.

Lowering the top personal rate from 40 percent to 33 percent would cause taxpayers in this bracket to take home $0.67 on every additional dollar earned rather than the current $0.60. This is an incentive reward of 12 percent. Similar incentive enhancements across the board could cause gross domestic product to double in 16 years, raising productivity and producing $350 billion in additional revenues.

Boosting productivity and growth will keep the prosperity going that turned our deficits into record surpluses, provide the additional worker productivity needed to finance Social Security and ease the transition to private savings accounts Bush envisions. The percentages of income earners Gore relentlessly talks about are not the same people locked into the same economic status for their entire lives, but constantly changing people, and often the same people at different stages of life.

Gore really seems to believe that raising taxes created our current prosperity (Bush should have hit him between the eyes when the vice-president bragged about his tie-breaking 1993 vote). Only after welfare reform, free trade, discretionary spending cuts and the capital-gains tax cut offset the 1993 Clinton-Gore tax hike did the economy resume its growth potential, putting white-out on billions of dollars in red ink. Gore's statist mentality is betrayed by his reference to tax cuts – which allow people to keep the money they duly earned – as "spending," another one of the countless statements Bush foolishly didn't challenge.

Too many Republicans pay lip service to conservative ideas without sincerely believing in them or even understanding them. If Bush wants to win this race, he must prove he is not one of these Republicans. Failure to do so will not only make him unworthy of victory, but also make it impossible for him to withstand Gore's distortions so that he may actually achieve it.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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