The third debate

Michael Barone

10/18/2004 12:00:00 AM - Michael Barone

Many people expected George W. Bush to fare poorly in the debates on domestic issues. But he seems to have done better than he did in the first debate, which was devoted solely to foreign policy. In the second and third debates, he scored some points by characterizing John Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal. But he did more than that. He did what he did in the 2000 campaign and as president: He redefined the issues.

 Democrats tend to win on domestic issues if the question is: Who is going to spend the most money? Voters believe, plausibly, that Democrats will. Thus for many years, education was a Democratic issue. Democrats, with their strong support from the teachers union, always promised to spend more.

 But in 2000, Bush redefined education. What mattered was not inputs (money), but outputs (achievement). Students and schools were to be held accountable for results. In 2001, with support from Democrats like Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, who were genuinely concerned about the low achievement levels of low-income students, Bush pushed through his education bill.

 The political result is that Republicans do about as well as Democrats with voters on education. That's why in the third debate, Bush kept returning to education -- when asked about jobs, when asked about the gap between rich and poor, when asked about affirmative action. He argued that progress is being made and that his education reform, which covers grades five through eight, should be extended to high school.

 Bush worked to redefine other issues, as well. Democrats still have an advantage with voters on health care, and John Kerry took pains to describe and defend his health care program, which is his major domestic initiative. Kerry would expand existing programs -- Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program -- to reduce the number of uninsured. He would also take some of the burden of existing insurance programs off large unionized employers -- a boon to the United Auto Workers.

 Bush would move in another direction. He argued that government-run programs would lead to rationing and that costs cannot be contained until consumers bear part of the cost. He called for more health saving accounts, which were included as a small part of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug law.

 Another issue on which Democrats have had a historic advantage is Social Security. John Kerry stoutly opposed all change -- no tax increases, no benefit cuts, no "privatization." Bush, as he did in 2000, called for personal retirement accounts. Older workers would continue to receive promised benefits. Young workers would have the option of putting some of their Social Security tax into investment accounts they would control. This tests well in polls, especially with young voters, who are skeptical that they will ever receive promised benefits. (But many Republican politicians, worried about elderly voters, are skittish about the issue.)

 Bush can be justly criticized for not laying out his plans with much specificity. As on Medicare-prescription drugs, he seems content to raise the issue and let Congress -- especially House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas -- work out the details. Nor is it clear that any significant number of Democrats would support Bush on health savings accounts or Social Security. A re-elected George W. Bush may or may not be able to deliver on his promises.

 But he has at least set out a vision of an "ownership society" that is a vivid contrast to what John Kerry proposes. Kerry, like most Democrats since the 1970s, aims to move this country some distance toward a Western European style welfare state. (His proposals would result in government spending an ever larger percentage of gross domestic product far into the future. Leave aside the question of whether his tax increase on the highest incomes would pay for this.)

 The (larger) question is whether the United States wants to become a society with the problems of Western European welfare states -- zero job growth, stagnant economies, ever-increasing shares of GDP spent by government.

 Industrial economies, with their huge firms and masses of low-skill workers, had a natural tendency toward centralization and government redistribution of income: hence the New Deal, the Great Society, the Western European welfare states. Post-industrial economies, with their burgeoning small firms and churning technological innovation, have a natural tendency toward decentralization and market distribution of resources.

 The vision Kerry presented in the second and third debates, of further centralization and growing government, seems more in line with the industrial era. The vision Bush presented, more effectively than he has before, is more in line with our post-industrial times.