Ballot Box

Slander Patrol: A Gore Miscellany

Al Gore’s assaults against his opponent are coming fast and furious. Here are three of the latest.

1. George W. Bush has never put together a budget.

Charge: A week ago, Gore said of his opponent, “You know, he has never put together a budget. The governor of Texas is by far the weakest chief executive position in America and does not have the responsibility of forming or presenting a budget. He’s never done that, and that may be one of the explanations for why he’s making this proposal for America’s budget.”

Rebuttal: “That’s factually incorrect,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer responded. “The governor does prepare a budget.

Analysis: Under the Texas Constitution, the governor is not required to submit a budget to the legislature, the way the president is required to submit an annual budget to Congress. However, Bush, like many Texas governors before him, has chosen to submit detailed proposals for Texas’ two-year budgets. In 1995, his first year in office, Bush contemplated proposing a budget but instead submitted only a two-page budget message. According to a spokesman for the Texas lieutenant governor’s office, the reason was that Bush was sworn in after the state legislature had already begun meeting to consider the budget for that two-year cycle. In 1997 and 1999, however, Bush did submit full-blown line-item budgets that included detailed spending breakdowns for each agency, including such specifics as source of funds, number of employees and explanations of changes from prior-year budgets. Bush’s 1997 budget proposal ran 154 pages and his 1999 budget proposal ran 183 pages, not counting approximately 300 pages of documentation that were included in both years.

Verdict: Gore is wrong. Though the Texas governor’s office has little formal budget authority, Bush has put together and presented two detailed state budgets. 

2. Bush has a “secret plan” for Social Security.

Charge: Gore has repeatedly asserted that Bush “has a secret plan to privatize Social Security” and challenged Bush “to release his plan.”

Rebuttal: According to a spokesman, Bush has not decided on a specific plan for Social Security reform and won’t do so until he becomes president.

Analysis: Bush has often voiced his support for the idea of allowing workers to divert part of the payroll tax into private retirement accounts that they would control, but has not elaborated how such a plan would work. His spokesmen have said he does not intend to offer details of his reform plan until after the November election. However, aides have been quoted suggesting that Bush supports diverting approximately two percentage points of the existing 12.4 percent payroll tax to private accounts. This sounds suspiciously like the plan put forward by Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, who happens to be one of Bush’s top economic advisers. However, the details don’t match exactly; Feldstein’s plan is based on an additional contribution from workers of 2 percent of payroll, offset by a tax credit. Bush’s idea is to divert 2 percent of FICA contributions. There are other plans that match the diversion aspect of Bush’s plan more closely. Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana and Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire have proposed a plan that would require a similar-size diversion into individual accounts. Sen. Bob Kerrey and former Sen. Alan Simpson proposed a different 2 percent plan several years ago. Reps. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Nick Smith of Michigan, and John Porter of Illinois have each proposed versions with varying percentage amounts diverted into private accounts. Some of these plans are mandatory, some are voluntary, and they all have different details. Bush may be shrewdly postponing a decision on which plan is best, but there’s no evidence that he has already decided. Moreover, there is ample precedent for a presidential candidate articulating principles rather than proposing specifics on this kind of issue. For instance, the Clinton-Gore campaign promulgated concepts, not specifics, on health-care reform in 1992.

Verdict: Gore is being unfair. While Bush has a general approach to reforming Social Security, there is no evidence that he has a “secret” plan.

3. Bush is a pawn of the National Rifle Association.

Charge: A few days ago, Gore charged that Bush “would take the gun lobbyists out of the lobby and put them right into the Oval Office.” Gore was referring to a clandestine videotape in which an NRA official boasted that if Bush won, “we’ll have a president … where we work out of their office.” Elaborating, Gore Press Secretary Chris Lehane commented, “This tape is the proverbial smoking gun that proves once and for all that George W. Bush is in the hip holster of the gun lobbyists.”

Rebuttal: “It’ll be my office. I’ll make the decisions as to what goes on in the White House,” Bush responded.

Analysis: The charge that the NRA will be in the Oval Office is a metaphor as is the charge that Bush is in the NRA’s pocket. What is required to sustain them is not literal proof, but support for the assertion that Bush’s policies do not differ in any substantial way from those of the NRA. Bush defenders cite three examples of his independence from the group: 1) A few months ago, when NRA President Wayne LaPierre suggested that Clinton and Gore were willing to accept a certain amount of gun violence for political reasons, Bush distanced himself from the remarks; 2) Bush supports mandatory trigger locks and the NRA doesn’t; and 3) Bush supports running background checks on purchasers at gun shows and the NRA doesn’t. On closer examination, however, these differences recede into near-irrelevance. In March, when LaPierre said that Clinton had “blood on his hands,” Bush tepidly averred that LaPierre “may have gone too far.” Bush has spoken skeptically about trigger locks for guns. He has said that he might sign a bill mandating them but not that he would push for one. On the gun show loophole, Bush and the NRA find common ground on “instant” background checks. In any case, Bush’s differences with the NRA are minor in comparison with the major areas where they agree: Handguns shouldn’t have to be registered, people should be able to carry concealed weapons, and gun manufacturers should be immune from product liability suits. 

Verdict: Gore’s charge is defensible. Bush hasn’t broken with the NRA on any significant issue.