Advise and Dissent: The Battle of the Campaign Staffs

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It was probably wishful thinking to expect four top policy advisers to Al Gore and George W. Bush to end their spin cycle for a night and talk openly about what their candidates will accomplish in office.

That was the hope when Charlie Rose and TIME invited two advisers from each campaign to sit down Wednesday night at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in front of a student audience to talk real details about what a Gore or Bush administration would be like.

But no professional working for a national campaign is going to drop their guard three weeks before an election that's closer than any in recent memory. Still, students did get to see a bonus round of debating, and hear the campaigns talk about some of the issues Jim Lehrer never bothered to bring up. PBS audiences get to see the forum Friday night.

Gore gurus Elaine Kamarck and Greg Simon worked well as a tag team in the discussion. When Bush adviser Robert Glenn Hubbard leveled a charge against Gore's spending plans, the two shouted in perfect chorus, "That's just not true!" Kamarck is Gore's senior policy adviser and used to work with him on the National Performance Review — what Gore calls reinventing government. Simon used to be Gore's chief of staff and now works as an outside adviser. He also sings to the press corps on Air Force Two — usually song parodies making fun of Bush and Cheney to the tune of songs like "American Pie" or "All You Need Is Love."

In Bush's corner sat Hubbard and Stephen Goldsmith. Hubbard is a Columbia University professor who advises the governor on tax policy; Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, is the only actual politician in the bunch. Goldsmith was a pioneer of compassionate conservatism while he was mayor and helped Bush develop his ideas on the subject. Rose tried to start the discussion by asking what would be the first priorities when Bush or Gore took office, but when Hubbard offered tax cuts as one of Bush's first moves in the Oval Office, the conversation quickly descended into the same war over taxes that has dominated each debate.

After three debates, Bush's belief in an across-the-board cut and Gore's in more targeted cuts is well known. Within five minutes all four advisers were throwing conflicting numbers at each other — "almost half of Bush's tax cut goes to the wealthiest 1 percent," "Gore's spending is the largest since the Great Society," etc. Kamarck tried to put targeted tax cuts in human terms. "Two neighbors live next door to each other," she said. "One makes $30,000, the other makes $30,000. One happens to have a mother with Alzheimer's disease. Under our plan the government helps her out. Under their plan, they both get the same, small tax cut." Hubbard countered that targeted tax cuts force people to behave a certain way, an inappropriate role for government. "You create a situation where if I get a 5 percent raise in salary, I lose one of these credits. It creates very high marginal rates."

The conversation got even livelier when students and other audience members started asking their own questions, mostly because they raised new issues. With the election as close as it is, the candidates have focused almost entirely on a few major concerns that resonate most strongly with a few crucial swing voters — Social Security, taxes, health care and education. But when the audience began to ask about issues usually not addressed, the panelists dropped the prepackaged answers. Students asked what Bush or Gore would do to help the homeless. How would they stop the mentally ill from being sent to prison instead of hospitals. How to narrow the wage gap between men and women. And 85 minutes into the discussion, one student asked the panel how Bush and Gore view Napster (it's surprising it took so long with a college audience). Both sides agreed copyrights need to be respected, but that Napster is a wakeup call to the record industry and undiscovered musicians to explore new ways of distributing music.

One of the most passionate exchanges of the night concerned school vouchers. Goldsmith argued that Bush's proposed $1,500 voucher for kids in failing schools "was a pretty good start for paying private school tuition." The Harvard audience, many of whom undoubtedly went to good — and expensive — private schools, shook their heads in emphatic disagreement. Simon argued that the country has always believed in universal public education and all available dollars need to be focused there. "Our first priority is to fund public education," he said. "The Bush plan gives people only enough money to think about private school and then think again." And when Goldsmith echoed Bush's argument that the Texas governor can work on a bipartisan basis and end bickering in Washington, Simon made an argument Gore nver has, pointing out that parties in government disagree because they deal with important issues. "There's a lot for these guys to argue about."

After the dust had settled, how did Rose feel the evening had gone? Was he able to break through all the spin? "I was pleased with it," says Rose. "But you're never in control of it." Rose did feel the audience had added a lot. "I thought it was better with the kids being here. There are issues where people come up to me often and say, 'I wish you asked about that,' globalization or AIDS or the environment. I think we got to see that more."

And the students enjoyed the fray too, though like most debate watchers, what they saw didn't change their minds. One exchange student watching with a non-citizen's view thought most already had well established opinions. "The students that came brought preconceived expectations," says Iku Nagahori. "People weren't trying to make up their minds, they were trying to confirm what they already thought."