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Truth Emerges With a Few Creases

Accuracy: Candidates stuck to the facts, generally, but in a way that sometimes left an incorrect impression. The two often left out the bigger picture.


WASHINGTON — If you thought George W. Bush said in Tuesday's televised debate that all elderly Americans would have affordable prescription drug coverage if he were president, you could be forgiven.

If you thought Vice President Al Gore said the Clinton-Gore administration had slashed the federal bureaucracy by 300,000 jobs, you would have good reason.

Those no doubt were the impressions the presidential candidates wanted to leave. But it was not quite what they said or what their programs would do. For the most part, however, the candidates hewed close to the literal truth.

Sometimes the candidates relied on rhetoric more than facts. Bush got carried away when he said of the Clinton administration: "They haven't gotten anything done on Medicare, on Social Security, a patients' bill of rights."

The administration was part of efforts to reduce spending on Medicare in 1993 and again in 1997 that extended the solvency of the program. And while it failed to move its version of legislation giving patients greater powers in their dealings with health maintenance organizations, President Clinton used executive orders to extend the rights of federal employees and participants in federal health programs.

But the truth more often bent than broke during the final 90-minute debate before the Nov. 7 election.

"The federal government has been reduced in size by more than 300,000 people," Gore asserted in response to Bush's repeated attacks that he was in favor of a bigger federal government.

True enough. But civilian employees of the Defense Department--not what the public ordinarily thinks of as meddlesome bureaucrats--accounted for nearly three-fourths of the reduction. Employment has declined only about 100,000 in the domestic agencies.

Bush mentioned prescription drug coverage for seniors so often as to make it seem a certainty in a Bush administration. What he did not mention was that under his approach insurance companies and health maintenance organizations would have primary responsibility for offering prescription drug coverage and would influence the price.

Would it be affordable, even with the 25% subsidy Bush proposes? Seniors with low drug costs could choose relatively cheap plans with low benefit levels and would save money in comparison to their option under Gore's plan. But for the elderly with major drug bills, plans with sufficiently generous benefits could be prohibitively expensive.

As in the first debate two weeks ago, the candidates flung tax numbers at each other like auctioneers at estate sales.

Bush said he wants to do something to help a hypothetical $22,000-a-year single mother, who, he said, pays 40 cents in taxes for every additional dollar earned--more than the so-called marginal tax rate on the highest-income Americans.

Again, that's technically true. But the single mother doesn't exactly pay 40 cents more in taxes. Rather, her earned-income tax credit--a negative income tax for the working poor--is reduced by 40 cents for each dollar earned. That compares with 39.6 cents rich people pay on each additional dollar earned.

If you're single and want to save for your retirement, you might have come away from the debate thinking that Gore's plan is a better deal than it actually is.

Speaking of a single person with annual income of $60,000, Gore said: "If . . . you decide to invest $1,000 in a savings account, you'll get a tax credit, which means in essence that the federal government will match your $1,000 with another $1,000," Gore said.

In fact, single people would qualify for the one-for-one match only if they made less than $30,000, not $60,000, according to a Gore campaign document. The $60,000 threshold would apply to married couples, not singles.

Bush tried to look tough on gun control by asserting: "I believe that we ought to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. That's why I'm for instant background checks at gun shows."

But he didn't mention that if a thorough check can't be done instantly, as is sometimes the case, the buyer would get the gun anyway.

If Bush left you feeling that his opponent is a big-spending Democrat in the mold of Lyndon B. Johnson, that's no accident. Bush has worked hard in both his television ads and his debate performance to convey that impression.

"Just add up the numbers," Bush said Tuesday night. Gore's spending proposals are "three times bigger than what President Clinton proposed."

The Bush campaign is comparing $64 billion a year in new spending proposals that it says President Clinton made in 1992 to what it says are Gore's $260 billion to $290 billion a year in new spending proposals. But the large Gore numbers come from counting a substantial chunk of the vice president's tax cuts as spending.

When Gore's new spending plans are measured against the size of the economy--as most economists gauge such proposals--they are about the same size as Ronald Reagan's and vastly smaller than Johnson's.


Times researcher Robin Cochran contributed to this story.

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