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Bush fails to make a case for his ideas

The great paradox of this presidential election is that Al Gore is the "candidate of substance," while George W. Bush _ the source of the campaign's few fresh ideas _ is typecast as a hopeless dunce. For this, Bush is mainly to blame, and it could cost him the election and deprive the nation of a needed debate about how to make government more effective and trustworthy.

Almost all Gore's proposals (from new spending programs to "targeted" tax breaks) are leftover Clinton policies. Fair enough. Though claiming to be his "own man," Gore is essentially promising an extension of the Clinton administration. By contrast, Bush endorses a vague form of school vouchers, personal investment accounts for Social Security, a large income-tax cut and a sweeping review of military preparedness.

But to be a candidate of ideas, you have to understand them, defend them and convince people that they have merit. On all counts Bush has so far failed. A few weeks ago he tried to explain his $1.3-trillion tax cut (over a decade). In the process, he confused billions with trillions and lapsed into near incoherence. His discussion of the military involved some claims that, on inspection, turned out to be untrue.

The problem isn't that Bush's issues are phony. Consider defense. A recent (March) report of the Congressional Budget Office shows that military equipment is aging rapidly because procurement budgets have been squeezed. Should more be spent to modernize? Or is the U.S. military so powerful it could overwhelm any conceivable adversary?

Good questions. There are others. Let's take education. Gore proposes spending $115-billion over the next decade. This sounds like a lot of money _ and is. But public-school spending (most of it by states and localities) totaled almost $360-billion in the 1999-2000 school year. Assuming conservatively that this spending rises 3 percent a year, school spending during the next decade would total $4.2-trillion. Gore's $115-billion would increase that less than 3 percent. Would the extra funds really improve student achievement?

One Gore proposal would increase teachers' salaries and create more stringent licensing requirements. Yet a recent study by the Rand Corp., a California think tank, of student performance in 44 states found that higher teacher salaries had "little effect" on outcomes. Are many of Gore's proposals mainly public-relations gestures, intended to impress the public and satisfy a large Democratic constituency (teachers unions)?

People may not grasp all the details, but Gore's mastery of them conveys an impression of substance. It shows that he can think. What it doesn't show is that his ideas are either original or effective. They may simply be costly and complex. Bush's problem is the opposite: He gives little evidence of thinking at all. He has trouble going beyond slogans.

Bush doesn't seem agile enough to pick apart the other guy's ideas. The point is not that all virtue lies with one candidate and all vice with the other. (For example, I don't like Bush's tax cut.) It is that voters deserve a legitimate contest of ideas; otherwise they may endorse an agenda that they don't understand and that, if adopted, won't do much good. Nowhere is the lapse greater than in Social Security and Medicare, where boosting benefits today _ which both candidates now support _ would compound the problem of paying for baby boomers' retirement in a decade or so. Bush once seemed ready to take the longer view; now he seems to be edging away.

The fault for Bush's stumblings lies partly with his staff. Almost all of Gore's attacks on Bush were predictable, but somehow his aides weren't prepared.

But Bush is Bush's biggest problem. He sets his campaign's tone and staff. Although he may be no genius, he's sufficiently bright (Yale, Harvard degrees) to become conversant on major issues. He doesn't seem to have worked hard enough. Perhaps his disdain for intellectuals deterred him. Maybe he figured that once he showed "compassion," he could win on charm. Possibly he thought that Clinton's moral taint would transfer fatally to Gore.

Whatever the explanation, Bush made a huge miscalculation. Voters don't mainly want charm and compassion. Peace and prosperity put the burden on Bush to create a case for change. His ideas aren't nutty. Last week Robert Reich _ Clinton's former labor secretary _ endorsed school vouchers in the Wall Street Journal; the Democratic Leadership Council shares Bush's approach to Medicare overhaul. But if Bush can't make his case coherently, then voters will harshly (and justly) discount his convictions as well as his competence.

Robert J. Samuelson is a columnist for Newsweek.

Washington Post Writers Group