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CAMPAIGN 2000

The Campaign Fault Line

Issues: Although Gore and Bush share some common assumptions, their disagreements are many and tend to center on the role of government in society.

October 03, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

If history is any guide, many of those watching tonight's first debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush will pay most attention to the candidates' personal qualities: their command of the issues, their steadiness under pressure, even their body language and tone of voice.

But the debate is also likely to illuminate, to a greater degree than any other event so far, the stark differences between the two men on a wide range of domestic and foreign policies.

In some ways, the extent of their disagreement is surprising. When the campaign began, some analysts worried that a race between "compassionate conservative" Republican Bush and "New Democrat" Gore would produce a pileup in the center devoid of sharp distinctions.

In fact, though they will probably do their best to hide it tonight, the two men do share some important common assumptions, particularly on domestic issues. Both believe government programs should demand personal responsibility while trying to expand opportunity--which is why welfare reform and crime, such flash points in past presidential campaigns, are unlikely to be mentioned much in the debate. Both believe grass-roots groups, such as religiously based charities, should be given a greater role in delivering social services. Both support charter schools as a way to increase competitive pressure on public schools. And each wants Washington to reward or penalize states based on whether they improve student performance.

But as their competition sharpens, the two men are increasingly dividing across an old fault line: the role of government in society. Most of Bush's key proposals aim to shift money and power away from Washington. Most important, Bush would devote at least 60% of the anticipated federal operating budget surplus to a tax cut. He also would implement the most important changes in Social Security since its inception, diverting part of the payroll tax into individual accounts that workers could invest in the stock market for their own retirement. In all these ways and more, Bush argues that his proposals trust "the people" while Gore would enlarge "big government."

It's no surprise that Gore rejects this formulation. He argues that Bush's agenda--whether the tax cut or his proposed changes in Social Security and Medicare--would benefit the rich and increase risk for the middle class. Like President Clinton, Gore has tried to formulate an agenda that accepts fiscal discipline but still advances an aggressive role for government in confronting entrenched social problems. So, on the one hand, Gore has proposed significantly more spending than Bush and a tax cut equal to only about one-quarter of the expected surplus. On the other hand, the vice president has also pledged to pay off the publicly held national debt by 2012--a promise Bush hasn't matched. In effect, in the core fiscal debate, Gore has positioned himself at once to Bush's left and right.

In the cross-fire of charges and countercharges, the details of these differences--or the candidates' equally large disagreements on such social issues as abortion and gun control--may be somewhat obscured. But the larger point is still likely to emerge: Despite the significant overlap in their thinking on some questions, Bush and Gore offer the nation a choice of very different paths.

The graphic, right, is a quick comparison of some of their major issue differences.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

ISSUES

Where They Stand

As the candidates prepare for tonight's debate, a look at their positions on key policy issues.

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ABORTION

AL GORE

Supports abortion rights, and in making judicial appointments would "protect a woman's right to choose."

GEORGE W. BUSH

Opposes abortion rights except in cases of rape or incest or when a woman's life is endangered. Would nominate "strict constructionists to the Supreme Court," taken by some to mean justices sympathetic to abortion restrictions.

*

DEFENSE

AL GORE

Opposes unilateral nuclear arms cut. Would develop technology for limited missile defense while seeking Russia's agreement to amend Antiballistic Missile treaty. Would increase defense spending by $100 billion over 10 years. Supports comprehensive test ban treaty.

GEORGE W. BUSH

Sees nuclear stockpile as excessive and favors cuts even if Russia does not match them. Would build robust missile defense system "to protect all 50 states and our friends and allies," seeking Russia's agreement to amend the ABM treaty but proceeding if necessary without such agreement. Spend $20 billion more for weapons research and development, $1 billion more a year for military pay raise, giving average soldier $750 more in first year. Opposes comprehensive test ban treaty.

*

EDUCATION

AL GORE

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