Commentary: It's The Issues, Stupid

First, a prediction: If the 1996 Presidential campaign continues at its current vacuous level, most voters won't pause to watch the candidates' televised debates, much less go out and vote. And who could blame them? To listen to President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole talk, the important issues of the day are same-sex marriages, who can toss the most moms off welfare, and which candidate might make the most trustworthy child guardian. Jay Leno and David Letterman never had it so easy.

Actually, a low voter turnout is only one of the dangers of an inane campaign. More important, the opportunity to engage the public in a serious debate about real-world solutions is being squandered while the two candidates blather about the best method to prevent flag-burning or pander shamelessly with pledges of tax cuts. Unfortunately, the handlers have persuaded the candidates to duck substantive issues, says GOP political strategist Kevin P. Phillips. "Don't discuss real problems because then you'll have to come up with real solutions that make voters or your contributors uncomfortable," he mocks.

RIDICULE. Trouble is, without an airing of important issues, Presidents take office with no mandates for action. Clinton's sudden discovery in January, 1993, of a worsening federal budget deficit was roundly ridiculed, and rightly so. That revelation, and his flip-flops on taxes and spending, have hampered his Administration's policymaking ever since.

The GOP doesn't seem to get it either. Emboldened by the May 28 guilty verdicts in Arkansas against Clinton's former Whitewater real estate partners, Republicans are hoping to raise anew the issue of Clinton's character and values. Yet GOP pollster Frank I. Luntz admits the approach didn't work last time: "When we talked about family values, that became code for imposing values." The real 1992 campaign, he says, turned out to be about economics.

The current campaign should also focus on the economy. For starters, suggests American Business Conference President Barry K. Rogstad, the candidates might try to answer this one: "How can we stop systematically borrowing from the future to fund the present?" It's a good question, but the answer goes far beyond the budget deficit to the basic priorities of government. Today, for example, the poverty rate for children--22%--is almost twice that of the elderly, but the aged get nearly $6 in federal benefits for each $1 spent on kids.

Ironically, Clinton wrote the book--literally, in 232 pages--on how to frame and run on the issues during his 1992 campaign. And many of the ideas that were raised in Putting People First are even more pressing today: providing continuing education for workers so they can compete in a global economy; better and safer public schools with rigid national standards; campaign finance reform to dilute the currently overwhelming power of special interests; spending Superfund dollars on cleaning up toxic-waste sites rather than on legal wrangling over how to do it; community-based policing; drug-treatment on demand, and reducing crime in public housing projects.

MUCH MUD. The Dole camp could make a major contribution by introducing tax reform into the debate. So far, the Dole campaign is floating a 15% income tax cut as "a downpayment on reform" and pondering a flat tax. But any tax system that continues to reward borrowing and penalize savings and investment doesn't deserve to be called reform.

The party conventions are more than two months away, and the campaigns are still under construction. But the early trend shows the candidates veering towards "superficial mudslinging disconnected from anyone's life or real concerns," notes Democratic consultant Brian Lunde. If, as the GOP's Luntz believes, the current campaign "will be about who can best take this country into the next millennium," then Clinton and Dole would be wise to start giving voters a reason to show up at the polls.

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