Commentary: The Questions Bob And Bill Didn't Answer

Lincoln and Douglas would be laughing into their top hats. After 90 minutes of gentle jousting in Presidential Debate I, the talkathon staged in Hartford on Oct. 6, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole each left the podium with a bounce in his step. Each was convinced he had achieved his objective. Clinton was able to brag about the strength of the economy without appearing boastful. Dole came across as a jocular centrist--a far cry from the scowling ogre in editorial cartoons.

But to call this encounter a debate is to insult Lincoln, Douglas, and other silver-tongued orators of bygone days. The Hartford gabfest was intentionally designed by the two candidates to avoid detailed discussion of the issues. The candidates' handlers coach every bit of spontaneity out of them, insisting on a robotic repetition of "the message" in place of genuine give-and-take. What's left, in the end, are little more than free infomercials.

ANTIDOTE. How to improve things for the Oct. 16 debate in San Diego, during which citizens will quiz the candidates? Some detailed answers to hard-hitting questions might help.

Here's one for Clinton: How can you accuse the Republicans of trying to "cut" Medicare by $270 billion when you have proposed $124 billion in what you called "savings"?

During the first debate, Clinton repeated the Democratic demagoguery that GOP attempts to rein in Medicare growth amount to irresponsible "cuts." In fact, there is little difference between the savings favored by Clinton and Dole. But Democrats realize they have a winning issue--mostly because the GOP last year paired $270 billion in Medicare savings with a $245 billion tax cut. That strategic blunder by Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich opened the door for a Democratic fear campaign.

Another for Clinton: If the Democrats regain control of Congress, would you resist attempts to extend the target year for balancing the budget from 2002?

Many Capitol Hill Democrats would prefer a 10-year timetable for budget balancing. If the President wants to demonstrate that he is truly a New Democrat, he'll have to stand up to the party's liberal wing.

The questioners could also try asking Clinton this: Should Social Security be partially privatized to allow retirees to seek investments with higher returns?

This was a recommendation of a bipartisan commission in 1994. Both parties ignored the report, fearing its solutions were politically radioactive. But the proposal has support in the business community. Clinton's answer can signal whether he will resist efforts to make Social Security sounder.

Now for former Senator Dole. He has sidestepped crucial questions about the viability of his economic plan. Among them: When asked how you can balance the budget while cutting taxes by $548 billion, your answer is "trust me." Polls show that Americans don't believe your numbers add up. How will you do it?

Dole has been happy to tell Americans that he will slash their taxes by 15%. But he won't give them any idea where he'll find the money. Many economists believe Dole would be forced to make deep cuts in domestic programs--or delay the tax cuts. Unless he can answer the question, the tax plan is exactly what independent Ross Perot calls it: "free candy" for voters.

Also for Dole: What would you do to reform campaign-finance laws?

The '96 campaign has been marked by record special-interest spending. Dole's only response is a cop-out: to propose a blue-ribbon commission. Would Dole be willing, as Republican Chairman Haley Barbour suggests, to require groups such as the Christian Coalition to disclose their political spending? Would he ban lawmakers from soliciting money from lobbyists while Congress is in session? Does he support the bipartisan reform package co-authored by close adviser Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.)?

Dole also could be asked: You say you want a fairer, simpler tax system. Does that mean ending corporate welfare, too?

Throughout the GOP primary season, Dole hedged when rivals Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan proposed abolishing corporate tax subsidies. It would be interesting to know whether he favors ending government programs that assist his contributors in agribusiness, the energy business, and the tobacco industry.

The candidates should be asked these and other tough questions on Oct. 16. And there should be plenty of time allotted for each man to mix it up with the other and to question the stream of funny facts that are a staple of modern debates. Will this happen in San Diego? Don't bet on it.

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