Bush Assails Gore, Calling Ideas 'Tired'


By Frank Bruni, September 17, 2000


AUSTIN, Tex., Sept. 16 - Gov. George W. Bush sharply attacked Vice President Al Gore's positions on tax cuts, Social Security, Medicare and education today, casting them as triumphs of federal control over individual choice.

"My opponent's ideas are shaped by a quarter century in Washington - they were tired even when his career began," Mr. Bush said in a speech to a convention of the California Republican Party that he delivered by satellite from his central Texas ranch this afternoon. "Every big idea means bigger government. It's an old temptation: you start off trying to help people, and you end up telling them what to do."

The speech was by far Mr. Bush's most comprehensive, specific and strongly worded criticism of his Democratic opponent's policies, signaling his campaign's heightened desire to challenge Mr. Gore on issues and fashioning Mr. Bush as the real populist in the presidential race.

"The vice president talks about 'the people versus the powerful,' " Mr. Bush said. "But, in all his plans, who ends up with the power? Who always ends up making the choices? Not the taxpayers, but the tax collectors. Not the senior citizens, but the H.M.O. overseers. Not the parents, or even the teachers, but some distant central office."

"He says he wants to help 'the people,' " he said. "If only he would trust them."

The remarks provoked a swift and extraordinarily detailed response from Mr. Gore's aides, who issued a nearly 3,500-word written rebuttal and put many of Mr. Bush's proposals under their own microscope. They charged Mr. Bush with false assumptions and faulty arithmetic and left no doubt about the energy with which they would participate in an intensifying policy debate.

For more than a week, Mr. Bush's aides had said that he would begin to paint bolder contrasts between his and Mr. Gore's positions on some of the issues most important to voters.

And in bits and pieces, Mr. Bush did that over the last six days, as he campaigned in Florida, Missouri, Washington, California and New Mexico, maintaining a schedule that reflected the degree to which he has picked up his pace.

But not until today did he venture such a sweeping and pointed dissection of Mr. Gore's agenda. His speech was full of new and newly aggressive language, coupled with the assertion that if the campaign centers on issues, Mr. Gore will be forced "to play on our turf."

That claim amounted to an inversion of the conventional wisdom and of the findings in many polls, which show that more voters side with Mr. Gore and Democrats on many of these issues. But Mr. Bush's remarks today showed that he would try to erase that advantage by characterizing Mr. Gore as an old-style Democrat bent on big spending and intrusive government regulation.

He portrayed himself, in turn, as the candidate of new ideas, and he sought to turn his own considerably more limited and shorter career in government into an advantage by tagging Mr. Gore as the caretaker of the status quo.

He was careful to note that he does see a role for the federal government, albeit a limited one.

"I do not believe government is the enemy," Mr. Bush said. "But I do not believe government is always the answer. At its best, it can help people find the tools they need to build for themselves. At its best, it gives options, not orders. At its best, government can help us live our lives, but it must never run our lives."

The Bush campaign's greater resolve to engage Mr. Gore on issues underscored the progress that Mr. Gore has made in making himself more likable to voters. Mr. Bush's aides came to believe that it was more important than ever to tangle with Mr. Gore not simply over questions of character but also over questions of policy.

In an appearance today on the CNN news program "Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields," Mr. Bush made clear that he was not entirely abandoning the former, and made reference to Mr. Gore's fund-raising efforts in the 1996 presidential race.

"The vice president's a good family man, no question about it," Mr. Bush said. "But he has been part of an administration that violated financing laws. He did go to the Buddhist temple. He made phone calls from the White House and then uttered the famous phrase, `no controlling legal authority.' "

But the critique of Mr. Gore in today's speech steered clear of ethics and personality, which Republicans once saw as Mr. Gore's principal vulnerabilities, and straight into the issues. It illustrated Mr. Bush's eagerness to dictate the terms of the race after several weeks in which he did not do so.

Mr. Bush said that Mr. Gore's proposal for "targeted" tax cuts, less than half the size of his own $1.3 trillion plan over 10 years, was so rife with conditions that it rewarded only people who lived as the federal government saw fit.

"You may get help with child care, but only if your child is in paid or government-approved child care," Mr. Bush said. "Grandparents and family and friends are not included."

"You may get a break on transportation," he said, "but only if you drive around in a hybrid electric and gasoline-engine vehicle.

"My opponent's theory is that only the 'right' people should get tax relief," he added. "That's what Vice President Gore calls them, the `right' people. But there are no right people or wrong people in America."

He said that Mr. Gore's proposal to provide prescription drugs for elderly Americans through Medicare would not allow any flexibility.

"The vice president says he believes in health care choices, and he has made yours for you," he said. "If you want prescription drugs, that's a private matter, between you and your Washington bureaucrat."

He said that Mr. Gore would not do enough to change Social Security and that the vice president's plan did not address the long-term financial solvency of the program. "He relies on accounting gimmicks and massive I.O.U.'s that our children will have to pay," Mr. Bush said.

"He calls his plan `Social Security Plus,' " Mr. Bush said. "And that's a good name. The Gore plan is Social Security, plus massive government debt. Social Security, plus a staggering tax increase on the next generation."

The Gore campaign marshaled news articles and its own numbers to dispute many of Mr. Bush's charges, and Chris Lehane, a spokesman for the Gore campaign, said in an interview, "The speech is as fatuous as his policies are flawed as his allegations are flagrantly wrong."

The Bush campaign, for example, maintains that at least 50 million American taxpayers would not have their taxes lowered under Mr. Gore's plan, while the Gore campaign puts that figure at around 30 million. The Gore campaign's written answer to the Bush speech cited analyses that supported Mr. Gore's contention that middle-class Americans would get more economic help from him.

Mr. Lehane said that Mr. Bush's proposed tax cut - which, in raw dollars, gives the most money back to the wealthiest Americans - was proof that Mr. Bush would not have the resources, and did not have the desire, to help low-income and middle-class Americans.

"George W. Bush has no credibility on the issues, since he spends the entire budget surplus on a massive tax cut for the few at the expense of the many," Mr. Lehane said.

Aides said Mr. Bush's speech was a preview of the week to come. As he visits nine states over six days, Mr. Bush will pursue a cradle-to-grave comparison of what he believes to be the disparate effects of his policies and Mr. Gore's. At the beginning of the week, he will talk about children; at the end, about elderly people.

But his strategy carries risks, and not only because of the suggestion in polls that more voters believe that Mr. Gore shares their positions on issues. Mr. Bush is not always as forceful in detailed policy discussions as he is in broadly thematic appeals, and while today's speech allowed him to read from a text, many of the kinds of town hall-style campaign events that his campaign is staging are less controlled.

At such events this week, Mr. Bush's appraisals of Mr. Gore's proposals were nowhere near as vigorous as they were today.

Mr. Bush has spent much of the 15 months since he began his campaign laying out his own proposals. What was new about today's speech was how long and how critically it dwelled on the policies that Mr. Gore is advocating. He lashed into Mr. Gore's calls for new government spending, saying that Mr. Gore would create federal budget deficits.

"My opponent has a plan for the non-Social Security surplus: he's going to spend it all on new programs," Mr. Bush said.

And Mr. Bush used this charge to label Mr. Gore as someone who had been in Washington too long already. "I can sum up my opponent's economic plan in one simple sentence: keep sending too much of your money to Washington, because Al Gore thinks he knows how to spend it better than you do," Mr. Bush said.

He invoked President Reagan to explain why he felt that Mr. Gore was not a champion of the people. That detail perhaps demonstrated Mr. Bush's need and attempt to win "Reagan Democrats" as he and Mr. Gore compete for voters without binding allegiances to either party.

"As Ronald Reagan said," Mr. Bush recalled, " 'You can't be for big government, big bureaucracy, and still be for the little guy.' "

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov