Most people who vote in next month's election will not enter their polling places able to pass a pop quiz on the details of each candidate's positions. Except for activists and the few for whom politics is life, most will vote their perceptions about which one can be trusted to say what he means and mean what he says.
Despite Vice President Al Gore's better speaking and walking skills in the third debate, a fair observer would have to concede the trust factor and possibly the election to Gov. George W. Bush.
Gore was not as blatant in his exaggerations and misstatements as in the previous two debates, but there were plenty of inaccuracies. Perhaps the biggest howler was Gore's claim that the military is "the strongest in the history of the world." Stronger than Eisenhower's D-Day force? Stronger than in the Persian Gulf war? The Washington Post reported last week that the military is suffering from a mass exodus of captains from its ranks. Recruitment is down. Morale is low. Divorces are up because of lengthy and repetitive foreign "peacekeeping" missions and adventures.
Gore's other major whopper was that pharmaceutical companies spend more money on advertising and promotion than on research and development. In fact, the industry this year is expected to spend a record $26.4 billion on research and development, up from $24 billion in 1999, according to the PhRMA Annual Report for 2000-2001. That is many times the amount spent on advertising and promotion. Gore frequently descended into the minutiae of his various plans on taxes, education and health care, but Bush kept coming back to his strongest themes, leaving it to others to sort out Gore's political sleights of hand.
Repeatedly, Bush stressed his belief that government should allow individuals to do more for themselves and keep more of the money they earn to do it.
On education, Gore wants to tinker with a broken system, the nation's largest monopoly. Bush would insist on accountability for teachers and students and empower parents, not the state or the teachers unions, to decide what is in the best interests of children when schools fail to do the job we pay them to do.
On health care, as on education, Bush is pro-choice, believing competition improves quality and lowers costs. He would allow the kinds of health-plan choices Congress and congressional employees get. Gore again blasted HMOs and insurance companies for overruling doctors' decisions. But that is precisely what Medicare bureaucrats do and what Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to impose on us when she failed to socialize medicine. Gore said in the St. Louis debate he will give us Hillarycare but "incrementally." Do we really want government-run medicine?
It was on taxes that Bush scored best. Gore again engaged in class envy by invoking his tired mantra of Bush tax breaks going to "the wealthiest 1 percent." Bush countered that the people who pay the taxes ought to have them lowered in an era of projected surpluses. Bush thinks it is immoral that anyone should have to pay more than one-third of his or her income to government. His plan would eliminate taxes for a family of four earning less than $35,000 annually. Families making more would get less of a tax break and even those earning above $100,000 would see their taxes reduced 10 percent. Gore thinks everyone should seek government permission and funding to run their lives. Bush thinks "we the people" is still best.
As a debater, Bush may leave a lot to be desired, but his inclinations to trust the people are right. Gore's inclinations are in the direction of government. To him, the government is our keeper, we shall not want. Though we walk through the shadow of darkness, the government will be there to comfort us with programs underwritten by the hard work of others and wealth created by others.
That's about as stark a philosophical choice as one gets in an election. The question is, when Election Day arrives, will enough voters understand the difference between liberty and limitation, between dependence and independence, to make the right choice? And will they understand that character and trust, not promises based on focus groups, are the central issues in this campaign?
Cal Thomas writes for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.
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