The presidential debates are the Super Bowl of politics. With the race coming down to the line, they will decide the swing vote in this election and thus who leads American into this amazing century ahead.
Al Gore is a terrific debater. He is tough, disciplined and relentless, as I know from personal experience. He also has an added advantage: He is unconstrained by consistency or the facts.
A political debate should be an exchange of ideas and philosophy between two adversaries trying to build a case for our tickets and our parties, not necessarily an opportunity to tear down our opponents. But presidential-level debates are as much theater as policy forums, a cultural ritual rich in nuance, symbolism and double meanings.
Gov. George W. Bush must take advantage of this unfiltered opportunity to go right into the living rooms of the American people and make sure that every sentence he utters during the debate is calculated to explain precisely and unambiguously what he and Dick Cheney will do to lead the country and the world into the 21st century.
Over-the-top, ad hominem attacks on the vice president are clearly out of order, and I know Bush and Cheney agree. But attacking Gore's veracity is proper and essential, so long as it is focused on specific untruths and distortions that go to his credibility in office. In 1980, for example, Gore said "any plan to tax Social Security benefits ... is totally inconceivable ... it is unfair." Then he turned around in 1993 and voted to raise taxes on Social Security benefits.
Bush can simply let the record speak for itself. Consider the vice president's newly discovered concern about high gasoline prices. For years he has pushed for high energy prices - a BTU tax, his assault on the internal combustion engine in "Earth in the Balance," his Kyoto treaty to create energy scarcity and slow growth - an agenda he's marketed, falsely, in the name of "environmentalism" when it's really anti-growth extremism.
Likewise, Bush can't let stand Gore's rhetoric about a "risky tax scheme." He must make economic growth the centerpiece of his tax rate reduction proposal as well as the only way to save Social Security and Medicare. The Bush tax cuts won't cost the statically estimated $1.3 trillion, let alone the so-called $1.6 trillion with interest claimed by the Gore campaign.
The incentives to work, save and invest the tax rate cuts create will generate substantial new economic activity, which in turn will be taxed at an overall rate of about 30 percent. According to estimates by former Treasury Department economists Gary and Aldona Robbins, the Bush tax rate reductions will increase GDP by about $1.88 for every dollar in so-called estimated revenue lost by the tax cuts, which means that the net revenue loss will amount to only about $560 billion over 10 years. It is essential for Bush to establish this point early on in the debate.
He can put Gore on the defense by adding to his plan to eliminate the estate tax a broader proposal to cut the top capital gains tax rate in half, to 10 percent, and eliminate it in inner-city enterprise zones so that marginal businesses and minority entrepreneurs can get access to the capital they need to start up enterprises and create new jobs.
The capital gains tax is not a tax on the rich, it is a tax on the creation of new wealth and a tax on the American dream. According to conservative revenue estimates, cutting the capital gains tax in half would sufficiently reduce the cost of capital and generate enough new economic activity to more than pay for the remaining $560 billion in lost revenue from the Bush tax plan.
Bush must expose the cruel deception of Gore's economic plan, "Prosperity for American Families," which, in reality, poses an insurmountable barrier to families getting out of poverty and moving up the ladder into the middle class. For instance, under the vice president's plan, home-owning families who itemize their tax deductions would be denied a cut in the marriage penalty tax.
Also, the vice president offers a $3-for-$1 retirement-savings matching grant of $1,500 to a couple earning $29,999 a year who saves $500 on their own. But if their income goes up by just $2 over $29,999, they must forfeit two-thirds of their grant so their total income would decline by roughly $1,000. Lawrence Kudlow of ing-Barings points out that Gore plans a 50,000 percent tax rate on the extra $2 earned.
On top of this, more than $200 billion in new taxes is buried in the Gore plan, according to a new study soon to be released by the Robbinses. And Gore also fails to mention the $133 billion in new prescription drug fees he wants to levy directly on senior citizens (about $600 a year per retiree).
Everything in Gore's policy agenda is designed to give more power to big government. By contrast, everything on the Bush policy platform is designed to give more power to individuals, families and entrepreneurs, particularly to minorities and low-income people. The debates will give these candidates the forum from which to ask the American people ultimately whether they want to determine their own futures, or leave them up to the government.