Bush and Gore: Do the Labels Fit?

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Illustration for TIME by Ismael Roldan

"That's what this debate is about — the role of government in America," George Bush told a cheering crowd near Denver. "It's not just the difference between Big Government and smaller. It's the difference between a Big Government that thinks it knows best and a smaller government that believes you know better."

The Bush who spoke these words was not the Texas Governor but his father, the President, fighting his losing re-election battle against Bill Clinton in the fall of 1992. What's striking is that George W. Bush all but repeated the lines in last week's presidential debate in Boston. After spending a year trying to convince people that he's a different kind of Republican, Bush is hammering Al Gore with the same old-fashioned theme that didn't work for his dad. "There is a huge difference in this campaign," he said Tuesday night. "It's the difference between big, exploding Federal Government that wants to think on your behalf and a plan that meets priorities and liberates working people to be able to make decisions on your own."

A thick, befuddling fog settled over the presidential campaign in Boston — a blanket of contradictory facts and assertions that hasn't lifted yet. But two basic images loom through the haze. The first is Bush's portrait of Gore as a retrograde liberal who wants to patch up the edifice of the Great Society. The second is Gore's portrait of Bush as a faithful servant of the rich and powerful who wants to wire-transfer the surplus into the bank accounts of the upper class, spending "more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%" than he does for new education, health-care and defense programs combined. Are Bush and Gore right about each other? Every campaign serves up a cartoon version of its opponent. But these two caricatures are worth examining, because doing so helps explain how each man would govern, where their records and philosophies are fundamentally different — and where their plans are more alike than either cares to admit.

Gore's caricature of Bush has been in place for a year, but Bush's picture of Big Government Al didn't come into focus until Sept. 28. During a speech in Green Bay, Wis., Bush charged that Gore "has left the vital center of American politics ... (and) cast his lot with the old Democratic Party," betraying the reform-minded moderates that Gore helped propel to power in 1992. "The Vice President was seated right behind Bill Clinton at the State of the Union when the President declared, ‘The era of Big Government is over,'" Bush said. "Apparently, the message never took ... He offers a big federal-spending program to nearly every single voting bloc in America. He expands entitlements without reforms to sustain them."

Gore's camp calls the charge laughable, pointing out that by its count, Bush would outspend Gore handily over 10 years. (Bush's numbers, of course, say the reverse.) And Bush's new line of attack may sound off-key coming from a candidate who has worked long and hard to style himself as a compassionate Republican with his own goody bag of new programs. But the latest TIME/CNN poll, which finds the candidates in a dead heat among likely voters, suggests that people may be receptive to his argument. A solid majority of 56% agreed that Gore "would increase the size of government substantially." Gore advisers argue that Democrats have earned the trust of voters, that prosperity, balanced budgets and the prospect of huge future surpluses have put Americans in a mood to take a chance on new spending that solves problems for seniors and families. But Bush strategist Karl Rove sees another trend. "Undecided voters by 2 to 1 favor the Bush view of government," he says. "We like the contrast between a man who believes in an activist but limited government and one who defends an expansive, Big Government vision."

By any measure, Gore is proposing to spend a great deal of money. He wants to budget more than $600 billion over the next decade for two new entitlement programs and the expansion of a third: $338 billion for a prescription-drug benefit under Medicare, $200 billion for tax-free accounts to help poor and middle-class people save for retirement and $98 billion to extend health-care coverage to all uninsured children. (That's on top of $344 billion in new spending for education, the environment, defense and other programs.) And the real cost of the new entitlements could be far higher than Gore claims. The cost of his prescription-drug benefit could easily spiral over the next 10 years, and it's sure to spike in coming decades as the baby boomers enjoy their dotage. If everyone who qualifies for his subsidized savings accounts signs on for them, the program could consume $600 billion in the next decade — three times what Gore assumes. In one of his bolder debate lines, Bush warned that Gore is "going to grow the Federal Government in the largest increase since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965. We're talking about a massive government, folks. We're talking about adding to or increasing 200 new programs, 20,000 new bureaucrats."

Bush's numbers are much bolder than the facts warrant. His "200 programs" is based on a Bush-campaign laundry list of Gore ideas, including two new websites (each counts as a program). His "20,000 bureaucrats" is a partisan guess in an unreleased report by the Republican staff of the Senate Budget Committee. His biggest-spender-since-L.B.J. charge is more substantive. It is based on analysis by Carol Cox Wait of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan watchdog group. Wait compared the inflation-adjusted costs of various programs over the past 35 years to arrive at her conclusions. She concluded what she did about Gore, but she also concluded this: Bush's own spending plan would amount to the second largest increase since L.B.J.'s.

Some analysts take issue with Wait's methods. Since there are now some 75 million more Americans than there were in 1965 — and the economy is more than 10 times larger — they say the best gauge of Gore's spending is to compare it with Johnson's as a percentage of the nation's gross domestic product. When Robert Reischauer, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office who is president of the Urban Institute, ran those numbers, he found that from 1965 to 1975, the growth in the ambitious social programs launched by Johnson accounted for almost 7% of GDP at the time — and that Gore's new spending proposals account for about 1% of current GDP. In other words, Reischauer says, "what Gore wants to do is a shadow of what happened in the 1960s." As the Vice President's team is quick to point out, under Clinton-Gore, government spending as a measure of GDP has fallen to its lowest level since 1966. And even with all Gore's new proposals, his plan promises that by 2008 spending as a share of the economy will fall to its lowest level since the Eisenhower Administration.

Gore can promise a boatload of money for programs (and another $480 billion for tax cuts) yet still lay claim to eliminating the debt because of the government's forecast of a gaudy $4.6 trillion budget surplus over the next decade. The projected income may or may not materialize, depending on how the economy performs, but it allows him to boast of putting aside $2.8 trillion for Social Security and Medicare while leaving a $300 billion "rainy-day fund" untouched. Although his Medicare plan would encourage price competition between managed-care providers — it's not the one-size-fits-all program Bush claims — Gore dodges the toughest entitlement questions: when and by how much to trim benefits, increase premiums or raise the eligibility age for future retirees in order to stave off the eventual bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security. He simply maintains that none of it will be necessary, as if wishing made it so. "The campaign mechanics, with their poll tests and dial meters, don't encourage a robust, full-flowering debate on entitlement reform," says a Gore adviser who is frustrated with the candidate's lack of honesty on the issue. Gore the candidate is trying to get elected; Gore the public official knows the day of reckoning will come. And if it comes sooner than expected — if the economy craters and the surpluses go up in smoke — some of his allies say President Gore would jettison a few of his promises. "Everyone understands that what is said in the heat of a campaign isn't fully binding," the frustrated adviser says. "Once you're in office, you reassess and get things done."

One precedent for how Gore might reassess in a downturn can be found in the early days of Clinton's first term. In the 1992 campaign, Clinton and Gore promised $200 billion of "investment" spending to stimulate the economy, retrain workers and promote high technology; they ignored the growing deficit. But after Election Day, it grew even larger. Gore teamed with economic adviser Robert Rubin to talk a reluctant Clinton into abandoning his "investments" — and a middle-class tax cut — to focus on deficit reduction. The move helped reduce interest rates and turn the recovery into a boom. "Al showed a decisiveness and a willingness to make tough choices," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the New Democrat's think tank, who rejects the notion that Gore has left the moderate tent. "As President, he'd be ready to do it again."

The surplus, of course, is what also allows Bush to propose a $1.6 trillion tax cut while promising to spend $402 billion (about twice what Clinton-Gore promised in 1992) on education, defense, health care and a prescription-drug plan. And for all Gore's talk about risky schemes that squander the deficit, it's worth remembering that spending the surplus on a big tax cut and somewhat smaller spending plans isn't inherently "riskier" than spending it on big spending plans and a smaller tax cut. Both men blow through the money. The challenge is to identify the priorities embodied in each plan and decide which to embrace.

That's why Gore worked so hard during the debate to discredit Bush's tax cut, referring to it 10 times as a plan that would give more to the wealthiest 1% (families that earn $319,000 a year or more) than Bush spends on health care, the prescription-drug benefit, education and defense combined. He wanted to brand Bush as a tax adviser to the plutocracy, but he appears to have had only modest success; in the TIME/CNN poll, just under half of voters agreed that Bush's plan "would enrich the wealthiest 1% of Americans." Given the high stakes, it was surprising that Bush responded not with a specific rebuttal but mostly with complaints about Gore's "phony numbers" and "fuzzy math." Bush's advisers say this was partly a result of who Bush is — "It's not his manner" to rebut statistics with statistics, says Rove — and partly because his debate strategy was to avoid getting dragged into the policy weeds with Gore and instead stay sunny and above the fray. But Bill Bradley tried a version of that during the primaries, not refuting Gore when he hammered Bradley's health-care plan, and by the time Bradley realized his mistake, the voters had written him off. Which may be why Bush's team worked hard in the days after the debate to beat down the attack.

Whether or not Gore's assertion is true depends on whether or not you include Bush's plan for repeal of the estate tax in the amount going to the wealthiest 1%. The Bush camp argues that the tax shouldn't be included, because not all estate-tax relief would go to the highest income bracket. But if even just half of it did, Gore's claim would be right.

The squabble over the richest 1% is both symbolic and a bit silly. Obviously, any across-the-board tax cut is going to deliver the biggest dollar savings to the wealthiest Americans — they are after all the ones paying the most tax. Bush's conservatism tells him that no one should have to hand over more than a third of his paycheck to the Federal Government and that a big tax cut strangles future government spending, stimulates the economy and, yes, trickles down. But he knows he can't sell the tax cut by talking about the fairness of giving high-earners a break. That's why Bush so often appears on the stump with what his campaign calls "tax families," middle-class people who he says would do better under his plan than under Gore's. There are plenty of such people, but Gore's team has made a point of highlighting two other "tax families" they think best illustrate who really makes out nicely, and those families sound an awful lot like the Bushes and the Cheneys. (A married couple from Wyoming earning $4.4 million a year, as the Cheneys did last year, would receive a $278,000 tax cut under Bush's plan.) Beyond the bickering about who gets what, the difference between the approaches is clear. Gore tries to deliver the savings to the people he thinks need it most: his tax cut is half the size of Bush's and targeted at low- and middle-income families with day care and college expenses or elderly parents to care for. Bush tries to spread the savings around to everybody who pays taxes. And that inevitably favors the rich. Bush seems to believe his plan is fair. But it's worth noting that the chunk of the surplus he would hand over to wealthy Americans could have been used to deliver, for example, a more generous Medicare plan for middle-class seniors, who would get a 50% subsidy for premiums under Gore's plan and only a 25% subsidy under Bush's. Does that mean that Bush is, as Gore charges, so eager to service the rich that he stiffs most everyone else?

As Texas Governor, Bush helped secure the tax cuts that were his No. 1 priority by underfunding Medicaid and delaying a state law that would have expanded its coverage of poor children; he also failed to pursue federal grants to treat aids patients and indigent adults. But it is also true that in 1997 he backed a noble effort to raise business taxes to boost school funding and reduce reliance on property taxes. He fought hard for the plan, which originated with Democrats in the state legislature, but came up short. In other words, Gore's cartoon version of Bush is no more complete than Bush's cartoon version of Gore. They are both complex and sometimes compromised men, both pragmatists who will govern in part based on economic realities and the need to push bills though a sharply divided Congress — no matter which party ends up with the nominal majority. But as incomplete and misleading as the cartoons may be, they could have a great deal to say about who wins. If either man succeeds in selling his caricature of the other guy to undecided voters, he will pull ahead, probably for good.