Slipping in the polls, Al Gore is promising an all-out assault on George W. Bush's record in Texas in the remaining days of the election. It seems an odd choice against a hugely popular governor who was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote in the state and who holds a similar lead among Texas voters in his presidential bid. But Gore is betting he can defeat Bush by scaring voters into thinking Bush will turn the United States into some Southern backwater, more akin to a third-world nation than one of the world's richest nations.
The last time a presidential candidate tried this, it failed miserably. Just ask George Bush ... the former president, that is.
In 1992, the Bush campaign tried to paint Bill Clinton as the governor of a small, failing Southern state. Republicans pointed to Arkansas' rankings as 50th in the nation in environmental policy initiatives, 47th in per capita education spending, 45th in child poverty, 47th in the percentage of uninsured children. The American people went on to elect Bill Clinton anyway.
Now Al Gore is trying to reprise the same theme, with a blitz of radio and TV ads and a traveling road show of Texas critics. The centerpiece of the campaign is an attack on Gov. Bush for failing to provide health insurance to all Texas children. To hear the Democrats tell it, you'd think Gov. Bush had taken money from sick children to give tax breaks to the rich and powerful.
So why do so many Texas kids lack health insurance? Probably the biggest factor is one over which George W. Bush has absolutely no control. Texas has a huge immigrant population, by virtue of its geographic location and its history. More than 2 million immigrants live in the state, which has the fourth largest immigrant population in the nation and the second largest population of illegal aliens.
Immigrants -- legal and illegal -- are far more likely than others in this society to lack health insurance. Nearly one-third of persons living in immigrant households nationally do not have health insurance, according to a new study by the Center for Immigration Studies. Recent immigrants, those who came between 1994 and 1998, account for almost 60 percent of the growth in the size of the uninsured population since 1993. And Texas is home to more than a half-million recent immigrants, the highest proportion of any state.
Many immigrants work at low-wage jobs that do not provide health insurance. Others who could afford to buy insurance choose instead to send money to struggling family members in their native country or save to start their own businesses or buy homes in the United States. It may be regrettable that so many immigrant families in Texas go without health insurance, but it doesn't make sense to blame Gov. Bush.
In fact, Al Gore himself reportedly played a major role in a decision that deprived some 150,000 Texas children of the chance for health coverage. In 1995, Gov. Bush sought permission from the Clinton-Gore administration to allow private contractors to administer some aspects of Texas' Health and Human Services programs and generate savings that would be used directly to provide health insurance for uninsured children. According to Kenneth Weinstein, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, the Bush plan would have saved more than $10 million a month, enough to pay for health coverage for 150,000 children. Writing in the Weekly Standard recently, Weinstein reports that Al Gore, bowing to pressure from the AFL-CIO, helped kill the Texas plan in 1997. The unions were worried that Bush's plan would cost public sector jobs, not just in Texas, but elsewhere if it succeeded and other states followed suit. They threatened to withhold support for Gore's impending presidential run. Gore sided with the unions instead of the kids, and persuaded Bill Clinton to nix the Bush plan.
When it comes to defending records, Al Gore had better worry about his own.