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White House Rivals Spar Over Reform


WASHINGTON — Broadening their struggle for the reform mantle, George W. Bush and Al Gore are taking aim at each other's plans for retooling the nation's core domestic programs of Social Security, Medicare and public education.

Since effectively clinching their parties' nominations last week, Gore and Bush have sparred primarily about their plans for reforming the campaign finance system. But in separate interviews with The Times, each man promised as president to pursue an aggressive agenda to strengthen public education and the retirement programs of Medicare and Social Security. And each portrayed his opponent as a prisoner of his party's old ideas on the issues.

The debate is most advanced on education, where the two rivals have offered detailed proposals that sharply diverge on the federal government's role in promoting school reform.

"The logic of Vice President Gore that says we are just going to continue putting more money into a school that is failing is beyond me," Bush said. "Either he doesn't believe children can learn or he is willing to accept the status quo."

Fired back Gore: "I think the reason for the very minuscule nature of [Bush's] education agenda is that the Republican Party leadership believes that the national role in education should be sharply limited and doesn't really want major national reforms. And I do."

Traditionally, Republican presidential candidates have viewed issues such as education and Social Security as Democratic strengths. Accordingly, the GOP candidates have sought to minimize the role of these issues in the campaign while emphasizing such conservative themes as tax cuts, defense and crime.

But Bush, in his victory speech after last Tuesday night's spate of primaries, accused Gore and President Clinton of squandering opportunities to reform education and Social Security; in the recent interview, he added Medicare to his indictment. On all of these issues, the Texas governor charged, Gore "is defending the status quo."

Giving no ground, Gore argues that Bush's reform plans on education, Medicare and Social Security would all be counterproductive--and that Bush's call for a massive across-the-board tax cut would drain funds vital to all three programs. "When you look at his budget plan, Medicare plan and Social Security plan, you really have to wonder whether Gov. Bush has the experience to be president," Gore charged.

In his willingness to challenge Gore on these domestic issues, Bush is drawing on an extensive conservative critique of traditional federal programs that revolves largely around the idea of shifting power from government to individuals.

On entitlement issues, that impulse translates into Bush's proposal to allow younger workers to divert part of their Social Security taxes into individual accounts they could invest for their own retirement. Similarly, Bush has called for fundamentally transforming Medicare, the nation's health care program for the elderly, from a system that directly provides health care into one that provides seniors subsidies to purchase private insurance (with larger subsidies available for low-income seniors).

Gore denounced Bush's proposals as a risk to the collective safety net both programs now provide. Voluntary investment accounts, Gore charged, "would destroy Social Security" by diverting payroll tax revenues now used to pay benefits; likewise, Gore maintained, Bush's Medicare proposal "would create a two-track system" that would allow more affluent retirees to purchase better care.

Clash Over Social Security

Previewing what's likely to be a central general-election theme, Gore also charged that Bush's tax-cut plan would threaten both programs--a charge Bush emphatically denies. In return, Bush charged at a news conference Monday that Gore's refusal to support fundamental restructuring of Social Security means "the vice president must not understand the reality of its problem."

Similar divisions occur over education. The two men share some common priorities, such as encouraging charter schools and ending social promotion. Yet they differ decisively on the best way to encourage reform, particularly the proper role for Washington.

Bush's instinct to move authority from government to individuals is evident in his support for publicly funded vouchers and other tax benefits that parents can use to help send their children to private schools. But unlike some other GOP leaders, Bush has developed an education agenda that extends far beyond vouchers.

In three detailed speeches last fall, Bush tried to devise an enhanced role for Washington in leveraging education reform without sparking conservative fears of excessive federal intrusion in local schools. Bush produced a series of proposals that would push states to more comprehensively test student performance--and hold schools accountable for the results--while allowing local authorities to design the actual tests and giving state officials and parents more control over federal education dollars.

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