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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Debate Was a Numbers Game, but How Does It All Add Up?

Politics: Gore was misleading in linking his spending plans to his tax cuts. Bush's claim about the Social Security surplus is true--for the time being.

October 05, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and PETER G. GOSSELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Numbers flew like shrapnel at Tuesday night's first debate between George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

Gore was, by far, the most aggressive in marshaling statistics against his rival. He peppered Bush with a dizzying array of ratios, mostly meant to highlight the differences in their approaches toward allocating the anticipated federal budget surplus.

But even Bush, while repeatedly accusing his rival of "fuzzy math," managed to fire a few numbers back across the stage.

How did the candidates' calculations add up? Here's a look at some of the principal statistics each man cited--and how they square with their actual proposals.

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GORE ASSERTIONS

* "For every dollar that I propose in spending for things like education and health care, I will put another dollar into middle-class tax cuts."

Verdict: Literally true, but misleading. According to Gore's campaign manifesto, Prosperity for America's Families, the vice president would cut taxes by $480 billion over the next decade. During that same period, he proposes to spend a comparable amount solely on education and health care ($575 billion); but his total new spending would be $795 billion by his estimate--and significantly more by GOP calculations. Either way, Gore's total spending exceeds his tax cuts, which may not be the impression he left.

* "And for every dollar that I spend in those two categories, I'll put two dollars toward paying down the national debt."

Verdict: True by his own estimates. Gore puts the total 10-year cost of his spending and tax cut proposals at $1.5 trillion and would allocate $3 trillion over that period toward debt-reduction. The $3 trillion would come from the anticipated surpluses in Social Security ($2.3 trillion) and Medicare ($463 trillion) receipts and $300 billion in on-budget surpluses that he proposes to set aside as a reserve. Republicans believe Gore's spending plans would cost significantly more than he estimates, which would leave less remaining for debt reduction.

* Bush "would spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% than all of the new spending he proposes for education, health care, prescription drugs and national defense. . . . Almost half of all the tax cut benefits under Gov. Bush's plan go to the wealthiest 1%."

Verdict: True, as far as it goes, but it misses one important point.

Any across-the-board cut in income tax rates would result in the rich reaping big benefits because they bear a big share of the nation's tax burden. Many independent analysts still favor such cuts over the kind of targeted tax breaks that Gore proposes because they are simple, easy to understand and easy to administer.

Gore bases his claim that the top 1% would receive nearly half the benefits of the $1.3 trillion Bush cuts on a study by the generally liberal Citizens for Tax Justice. The group concluded that 42.6% of the cuts would go to this group, which includes those with annual incomes of $319,000 or more.

To calculate the figure, the group assumes that all $240 billion in benefits from Bush's proposed elimination of the estate tax would go to the top 1%. Bush campaign officials dispute that, saying it's impossible to know who would benefit from the cut. The tax only applies after the first $675,000 in assets.

If only half the estate tax cuts goes to the top 1%, along with the income tax cuts they would enjoy, that would put the cost of Bush's tax plan at about $400 billion for the most affluent. According to the Bush campaign's own figures, the Texan would spend $382 billion on the programs Gore cited: education, health care, prescription drugs and defense.

* Under Bush's prescription drug plan, "95% of all seniors would get no help whatsoever . . . for the first four or five years."

Verdict: Arguable to misleading, though Bush's response was also misleading. Bush's proposed prescription drug plan has two stages. In the long term, he's proposing a fundamental overhaul of Medicare that would include subsidies to help seniors purchase prescription drug coverage from private insurers. In the short term, he's proposed $48 billion in grants to states over four years to help purchase prescription drugs for seniors earning up to 175% of the poverty level--about $19,700 for a couple. Bush's staff says that cutoff would make at least 25% of seniors eligible for the short-term aid.

Gore bases his figure on a calculation by Emory University professor Kenneth E. Thorpe--a former Clinton administration official whose independence Republicans question. Based on participation in existing state programs to provide prescriptions to low-income seniors, Thorpe projects that only about 600,000 seniors--or 5% of all Medicare recipients without drug coverage--would actually participate. Gore's comments may have left the impression, though, that only 5% of seniors would be eligible for help.

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