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The limits of issue politics

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Everyone in the political community pays lip service to the idea that the voters want a discussion of the issues rather than the candidates unleashing personal attacks on one another.

So right now the voters should be delighted. Both Vice President Al Gore and his Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush, seem determined to bury the electorate in mountains of position papers. One day it is Bush outlining his Medicare plan and the next it is Gore with a 190-page compendium of his economic proposals.

There is, of course, some accompanying bickering. The same day Bush talked about his Medicare proposals in Allentown, an hour or so down the road, the Gore campaign was on the local television stations in Scranton with commercials attacking the Republican nominee's plan just as he was arriving to do a few events. The following day, the Bush campaign went a step further by offering a rebuttal of the Gore economic proposal even before it had been made public.

In fact, there are clear differences between the two candidates on the issues on which most of the attention is being focused this year. They have different ideas about Medicare and prescription drugs, about how to improve elementary and secondary education and about how much of the federal surplus should be devoted to tax reduction and Social Security and how much to paying down the national debt. And, of course, they are on opposite sides on such touchy social issues as abortion rights and gun control.

So anyone who feels a need to parse these policy papers has plenty of raw material. But the campaign strategists consider the issues far less important for what they predict about presidential behavior than for what they suggest about the kind of people and public officials Gore and Bush might be. Thus, for example, that huge economic policy paper was intended to project a picture of the vice president as a heavyweight who knows everything about everything.

And if you want to infer that he knows a lot more than this term-and-a-half governor of Texas, please feel free to do so. Similarly, it was clear that Bush was under extreme pressure to describe his Medicare plan in some detail because of the drumbeat of charges from Gore that there was no such plan.

There are, however, some cautions in drawing too many conclusions from position papers. First, there is simply the fact that knowing a lot of stuff doesn't necessarily make for a successful presidency. In the post-war era there has been no one who has come to the presidency who was as intelligent as Jimmy Carter. But his intellect did not compensate for his inability to provide the kind of political leadership the office requires.

Nor has anyone except perhaps Lyndon B. Johnson come to the White House with a better grasp of the dimensions of national problems than Bill Clinton in 1992. But he is leaving office with a remarkable record on the economy but without solving the principal problem facing the federal government _ a long-term and permanent reform of the Social Security and Medicare programs.

Second, there is no assurance that any of these proposals from either candidate will become reality. The ability to write a new formula for Medicare, for example, will depend heavily on whether Republicans retain control of Congress _ and, if so, by how much. And even if the Democrats captured one or both houses, Gore could not be certain his proposals would be swallowed whole on Capitol Hill. The last time that happened was in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan's triumph in the 1980 election. In that case, Congress rushed through his tax and spending plan _ only to be forced to reverse itself on some of its important provisions two years later.

The issues on which presidents can make the greatest difference are those on which they can control the outcome. In the case of abortion rights, for instance, the new president will have the power _ and quite likely the opportunity _ to choose Supreme Court justices who could reaffirm Roe vs. Wade for another generation or overturn it. But, volatile though they may be, these social issues are far less critical to most Americans than the cost of prescription drugs.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are syndicated columnists with Tribune Media Services.

Tribune Media Services