If Wednesday night's final presidential debate is evaluated as a horse race, it went this way: Bush III (the jokester) was better than Bush II (the shouter), who was better than Bush I (the pouter). But none of the distinctly different Bush personas was as strong as the single Kerry who showed up for all three debates: thoughtful, informed, steady, unflappable and presidential.
If the third debate is evaluated for factuality, the most important points are these:
- President Bush did say he wasn't concerned about Osama bin Laden, as Kerry asserted and Bush denied. It was in a March 2002 news conference. Answering a question from CNN's Kelly Wallace, Bush gave a several-paragraph answer that ended with this: "So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you. ... I truly am not that concerned about him." That pretty well captures Bush's attitude; he was more concerned with Saddam Hussein than with the man who actually attacked the United States.
- The flu-vaccine shortage, Bush said "we relied upon a company out of England to provide about half of the flu vaccines for the United States citizen, and it turned out that the vaccine they were producing was contaminated." He further implied the vaccine wasn't manufactured in the United States because of vaccine company concerns over litigation.
In fact, it was an American company that produced the contaminated vaccine -- at a manufacturing facility in Liverpool. Liability concerns had nothing to do with it. And wasn't it amusing that Bush said the United States would look to Canada -- home of those unsafe prescription drugs for seniors -- to secure additional vaccine.
- Kerry accused Bush of not meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. In fact there was a single meeting, in January 2001, just after Bush took office.
- In the whopper of the night, Bush said most of his tax cuts "went to low- and middle-income Americans." That is a baldfaced lie. In taxes paid for 2004, the top 1 percent of taxpayers get about one-quarter of the cumulative benefit from Bush's cuts, according to the Urban Institute-Brookings Tax Policy Center. The top 20 percent get almost two-thirds, leaving only one-third for 80 percent of taxpayers. Statistics can be used to do lots of things, but they can't make Bush's tax cuts friendly to Americans with modest incomes.
But while the fact-checking exercise is helpful, the third debate illustrated the fundamental question confronting voters this year, the one on which their vote should depend: Do you believe the United States, under Bush, is headed in the right direction? Or do you believe it is on the wrong path?
On three issues central to Wednesday's debate -- health care, Social Security and jobs -- Kerry made a strong case that the nation is on the wrong path.
On jobs, Bush came very close to saying the unemployed lack work because they are uneducated. When asked what he would say to someone who has lost a job, Bush said, "I'd say, Bob, I've got policies to continue to grow our economy and create the jobs of the 21st century. And here's some help for you to go get an education. Here's some help for you to go to a community college."
He then launched into an irrelevant riff about the No Child Left Behind Act and his ideas for reforming K-12 education.
The point is that the American economy, now years into a so-called recovery, is generating little more than half the new jobs needed every month just to provide work for new entrants into the job market -- many of them coming out of the nation's universities, community colleges and technical schools -- to say nothing of providing opportunities for the millions who have lost jobs. Bush's approach isn't working. Investing in education means little if there aren't real work opportunities available.
Kerry articulated a different approach: Close corporate tax loopholes that encourage outsourcing; work to level the international-trade playing field; reduce deficits so government doesn't absorb so much of the capital needed by business; raise the minimum wage.
When Bush was asked about health care, he offered four ways to control rising costs: health savings accounts; reducing medical lawsuits; better use of information technology, and greater use of generic drugs. If he'd be willing to take on his friends in the pharmaceutical industry -- something he's never shown a willingness to do -- the generic-drug proposal might have some effect. But the focus on lawsuits is misguided; they have minimal effect on the cost of health care.
As for health savings accounts, two large studies have shown they would result in a segregated health-care population: The wealthy and the well would use them while the poor and the sick couldn't afford them. Such segregation is just what true insurance is designed to avoid, by spreading the risk across the broadest possible pool of health-care consumers and reducing the cost to all.
Bush also said repeatedly that Kerry favors a "government-controlled" or a "government-run" health care system. That, too, is untrue. Kerry would, indeed, cover many of the working poor with Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. But those programs work mostly through private providers; you go to your doctor, and government pays the bill.
Kerry also would have the government absorb the cost to employers from catastrophic health care losses, so long as the employers agreed to follow best practices that help reduce cost. And he would enable small businesses to pool their risk and buy from select plans that resemble the system used for members of Congress. In effect, what Kerry does is strengthen and broaden the existing system, through which most health insurance is provided by employers.
Finally, neither candidate discussed how to shore up the Social Security system, which several decades out may well become insolvent. But there was a big difference between them on Social Security nonetheless.
The assumptions on which predictions about Social Security's future are based have a pessimistic view of the U.S. economy's future growth. There is time to examine those assumptions and take corrective steps, and Kerry said he would do that. But he also made two other powerful points: Bush came to office with a $5.6 trillion surplus, much of which should have been used to bolster Social Security. Paying down the federal debt has that effect, because the Social Security trust fund is owed so much of that debt. The surplus wasn't used that way. It went instead to pay for new spending and for Bush's expensive tax cuts.
Now Bush wants to make the situation even worse in two ways: By making his tax cuts permanent and by privatizing part of Social Security. Every dollar that a young person is allowed to put in a private investment account makes the gap $1 larger between promised future Social Security benefits and future Social Security revenues. Making Bush's tax cuts permanent would cost $1.7 trillion over 10 years. Privatizing part of Social Security would cost $1 trillion or more to cover the lost revenue. When asked how he would cover that "transitional" cost, Bush had no answer.
An election in which an incumbent is running inevitably becomes a referendum on the incumbent's performance. Bush knows that, and his record across all the important issues is so bad he has tried hard to turn this into a referendum on Kerry's character -- which Bush operatives tried with considerable success to assassinate.
Now the debates have given voters a chance to see the two unfiltered. Voters need to drill through the spin and chatter about the debates to that central truth: The United States is on a disastrous path at home and abroad. George W. Bush chose that path.
2004 Star Tribune