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Off the Trail

Nothing's Safe When Gore, Bush Hunt for 'Lockbox' Issues

Who knows--the campaign may hinge on a key use of the hot word.

October 31, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the long arc of American history, presidential candidates have been silent on the issue of lockboxes. Until now anyway. As the tightest race in a generation hurtles toward its conclusion, Al Gore and George W. Bush are each trying to sell themselves as the true "lockbox candidate."

Weeks after Al Gore fired the opening salvo at the first presidential debate in Boston by stating repeatedly that he would put Medicare in a lockbox, Bush has now stormed back with campaign mailers stating that he would place Social Security in a lockbox.

What is fueling this explosive debate? Do the candidates fear a lockbox gap? How did we getlocked into this mess?

The Bush campaign is mum. Two calls to Bush's national campaign headquarters on the matter remain unreturned. A Gore spokesman, meanwhile, says his candidate's lockbox is more secure than Bush's lockbox. The Gore lockbox is "ironclad," explains spokesman Doug Hattaway, while the Bush lockbox is "a phantom."

Such tit for tat would have been difficult to imagine only a few weeks ago.

That is when the vice president stunned the nation with his frank and frequent debate ploy about the handy little security devices. According to fuzzy mathematicians, Gore thundered on about lockboxes at least four other times that night.

"I will put Medicare in an ironclad lockbox," declared Gore in the opening minutes of the debate. "I would be interested to see if [Gov. Bush] would say this evening he'll put Medicare in a lockbox."

Gore had brazenly thrown down the lockbox gauntlet, and at the time Bush declined to pick it up. But like so many bold gambits, Gore's challenge came with considerable cost.

Instead of lockbox voters flocking to his side, Gore woke up the next morning to find out he was being mocked. Comedy Central. Letterman. Leno. CBS News. Not to mention radio talk-show hosts from small Southern towns.

"This guy was totally maneuvering me into saying 'lockbox' just so he could whip out a tackle box, put his face into it, and say 'lock-box,' " says Gore spokesman Hattaway of an appearance on a North Carolina station.

Not to be outdone, Gore jumped on the bandwagon and decided to bash himself. At New York's annual Alfred E. Smith dinner in mid-October, the VP said: "I'm afraid that [the lock-box] is overshadowing some other vitally important proposals. For instance, I will put Medicaid in a walk-in closet. I will put the Community Reinvestment Act in a secure gym locker. I'll put NASA funding in a hermetically sealed, Ziploc bag. And if I'm entrusted with the presidency, I will always keep the lettuce in the crisper."

Such an unequivocal statement, thought most political observers, would put the nail in the lockbox, relegating it to the dustbin of American political history.

Apparently, the Bush campaign had other ideas. In recent days, the Texas governor's campaign staff mailed literature to voters in California in which he pledged to put Social Security in a lockbox. Not satisfied with using the term in question as a noun, the official Bush campaign Web site has turned up the heat on the Gore camp with this dilly: "Governor Bush supports lockboxing $2.4 trillion to save and strengthen Social Security."

Although the Bush campaign is not commenting on its use of lockboxes, its tough talk to the electorate may not be as strange as it seems. The Grand Old Party actually used the term last year when its Congressional majority proposed putting Social Security's excess tax revenues into a "lockbox."

Meanwhile, without admitting that Republicans may actually have coined the usage, Hattaway defends Gore's strategy as a means of speaking frankly and directly to voters. Lockbox, he says, is a more "picturesque" word than the inside-the-Beltway word of "off-budget" to describe an untouchable funding source. And despite the knocks, Gore has not abandoned the word, although he is using it more sparingly, Hattaway says.

For example, Gore continues to pledge putting funds for both Medicare and Social Security into a lockbox. Lesser known is that Gore has also been stating since April that he supports a Democratic proposal to place funds for key anti-crime programs such as hiring more community police officers and prosecutors in a lockbox too. It's unclear whether each item will receive its own lockbox or whether they would share the same lockbox.

Even in their role as spoilers, don't expect the Green Party to weigh in on lockboxes. Ralph Nader hasn't publicly addressed the subject and is unlikely to do so, according to Nader spokesman Jake Lewis. "Ralph thinks the issue of Social Security is overblown. It's just a scare tactic," says Lewis. "We won't be using that word. . . . But we do hope that the seniors will have some way of getting into the lockboxes the other candidates have mentioned."

In a key irony, the lockbox wars may be the result of a horrible misunderstanding. According to manufacturers of lockboxes, the candidates are using the term incorrectly. "It doesn't make sense, says Kathy Lundy, sales manager at Charnstrom Inc. which has been making lockboxes for 40 years. "They are taking it out of context."

Charnstrom builds lockboxes out of wood, plastic and metal, not iron. What's more, there's no such thing as a "phantom" one, at least with current technology. The devices, which can range from 5 inches by 5 inches to locker-size, are designed to securely hold mail or documents. That's it, says Lundy, whose firm is based in Shakopee, Minn.

But what if someone--say the president of the United States--wanted to cram a couple trillion dollars into one. Could it be manufactured?

"If it's a single check, it could," Lundy says. "But otherwise, I wouldn't consider a lockbox. I'd get a safe. A very big one."

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