Say what?

Five Bush debate statements bear closer inspection.


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Salon Staff
October 13, 2000 11:51PM (UTC)

Vice President Al Gore won last week's debate, according to early polls, but in the next few days he found himself having to explain some of his ill-advised mid-debate sighs and murmurs, and in the end lost ground to Bush. By contrast, instant analysis judged Gov. George W. Bush the winner of Wednesday night's debate. It remains to be seen which candidate will have the toughest time with the debate post-mortem, but five of Bush's comments cried out for follow-up scrutiny.

"Guess what ... They're gonna be put to death!"

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In an exchange over hate crime legislation, Bush said Texas didn't need tougher laws in the wake of the 1998 murder of James Byrd, the black man dragged to a hideous death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, because the three white men who killed him received the death penalty.

Bush got his numbers wrong: Only two of the three men convicted of the crime face execution. What might hurt him even more than that error, however, is the glib (some might say gleeful) way he made his claim. "Guess what: The three men who murdered James Byrd? Guess what's gonna happen to them: They're gonna be put to death!" Bush smiled, then went on: "It's gonna be hard to punish them any worse once they get put to death." He closed with an odd facial twitch that seemed to be his best effort not to smirk, then circled back again: "We can't enhance the penalty any more than putting those three thugs to death. And that's what's gonna happen in the state of Texas!"

Bush is already savaged nightly by Jay Leno and David Letterman for the fast pace of executions in Texas -- the governor has 145 notches on his belt -- and his boast about the impending death of Byrd's killers won't stop the jokes. More significantly, it won't reassure those who argue he doesn't take seriously the grave responsibility that accompanies state-sanctioned killing, even of convicted criminals.

"I support equal rights, but not special rights for people."

When moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush, "Do you believe in general terms that gays and lesbians should have the same rights as other Americans?" he tried to have it both ways, appeasing the right wing of his party without alienating gays.

"Yes," Bush responded. "I don't think they ought to have special rights, but I think they ought to have the same rights ... I'm going to be respectful for people. I'll tolerate people. And I support equal rights, but not special rights for people."

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The phrase "special rights" suggests extra rights, special advantages that would be handed out to certain politically correct groups. In fact, it denotes civil rights protections for members of specific groups, such as women, minorities and religious groups, from discrimination directed against them because of their membership in those groups. Conservatives argue that existing laws make such protections unnecessary.

Bush has a history of being wishy-washy on gay rights issues in the workplace, and there's nothing in his history that would suggest he would support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. That legislation, supported by Gore and congressional Democrats, would forbid employers from firing workers on the basis of sexual orientation.

As for protection for gays under hate crimes laws, Bush opposed adding sexual orientation to a 1999 Texas hate crimes statute. That proposed law, which earned support from the family of James Byrd, died in the Texas Legislature.

Unlike his running mate Dick Cheney, the Texas governor did not speak specifically about so-called "civil unions," legally recognized gay partnerships that receive some of the state benefits normally reserved for marriages. Cheney has said such laws should be decided on a state-by-state basis, and has come under fire for that position from several "family values" advocates.

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Furthermore, Bush not only opposes gay marriage, but has also stated his opposition to allowing gay people to adopt children. In late 1997, Bush refused to take a stand against an effort to ban gays and lesbians in Texas from becoming foster parents.

"I don't think we ought to be selling guns to people who shouldn't have them."

Asked if he saw a connection between controlling gun sales and accidental or intentional gun deaths, Bush said, "Well, [gun safety] starts with enforcing law. We need to say loud and clear to somebody, 'If you're going to carry a gun illegally, we're going to arrest you. If you're going to sell a gun illegally, you're going to be arrested.'"

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The "enforcing the laws on the books" line is a favorite with the National Rifle Association. So is Bush. In February, NRA first vice president Kayne Robinson told a meeting of NRA members that if Bush wins the White House "we'll have a president ... where we work out of their office."

According to a Wall Street Journal article, Bush would rather keep gun owners as political allies than enforce Texas gun laws. "Back home in Texas," the Journal reported March 29, "state officials rarely pursue violations resulting from two gun laws that Governor Bush signed into law."

Bush also claimed he supported gun show background checks at the debate. "I don't think we ought to be selling guns to people who shouldn't have them," he said. "That's why I support instant background checks at gun shows."

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In fact, Bush let a gun show background check bill die in the state Legislature on April 20, 1999 -- coincidentally, the same night as the Columbine shootings. After the legislation went down, Bush announced his support, but claimed it was too late in the legislative session to do anything about it.

Bush came out hard against registration of guns, however. "I disagree with the vice president on this issue ... he's for registration of guns. I think the only people that are going to show to register or get a license ... the only people who are going to show up are law-abiding citizens. The criminal's not going to show up and say, 'Hey, give me my ID card.'"

But the governor's own experience contradicts his concern that only law-abiding citizens, not criminals, would sign up for gun licenses and registration. Since Bush approved concealed-weapons permits for Texans in 1995, over 3,000 permit holders have been arrested for crimes, including 23 for murder.

"We've signed up over 110,000 children to the [Child Health Insurance Program] ... We're signing them up fast as any other state ... But I want to remind you, the number of uninsured in America during their watch has increased, [but] we're reducing the number of uninsured as a percentage of our population."

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Anne Dunkelberg of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas says that Bush was right when he cited the state's success in enrolling children in the CHIP program. But that program is for children of the working poor -- families that make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. There are more than 600,000 more children in Texas whose families are too poor to qualify for the CHIP program, but who are eligible for Medicaid. But, Dunkelberg says, while the CHIP enrollment process has been successful because of its simplicity, the Medicaid enrollment process remains mired in cumbersome, bureaucratic red tape. During the period in which Texas enrolled 100,000 children in CHIP, the state Medicaid offices received 62,000 referrals of children who were too poor to qualify for CHIP but were eligible for Medicaid. Of those 62,000, Dunkelberg says, only 4,800 actually enrolled in Medicaid.

"We're still not doing right by our lower-income kids," she says. "The application process for Medicaid is infinitely more complicated. It involes multiple forms and additional documentation. It requires an actual trip to the welfare office, which takes at least two hours, but probably a lot longer. And you have to return every six months and do it all again."

When the CHIP program was created by the federal government in 1997, most states used that as an opportunity to also simplify their Medicaid application process. But Texas did not. "It costs money to do it," says Dunkelberg. "It costs money to pay for kids to be insured. Opening the door to half a million children would have fiscal consequence on the state." The state must also pay a larger portion of Medicaid bills than CHIP bills. The state pays about 27 percent of the cost for CHIP patients, but pays about 39 percent for Medicaid patients.

In the two legislative sessions Bush has presided over, no money has gone to boosting Medicaid. But there has been plenty set aside for tax cuts, as Gore charged Wednesday night. In 1997, the entire $1 billion state surplus was used for a tax cut. In 1999, $2 billion of the state's $6 billion surplus was given back to taxpayers.

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As for Bush's claims that the number of uninsured in Texas has decreased on his watch, that is true. The number of uninsured Texans has decreased by less than 1 percent on his watch, while the number of uninsured Americans has increased by 1.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But from 1995-99, according to Census numbers, the number of uninsured children in Texas has risen slightly, also by less than 1 percent.

"Some of the scientists, I believe, Mr. Vice President, haven't they been changing their opinion a little bit on global warming?"

There is no consensus about the impact of global warming. But most scientists agree that humans are contributing to the rising global temperature. "Most climate experts are certain that global warming is real and that it threatens ecology and human prosperity, and a growing number say it is well under way," wrote New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin.

A few groups, like the Greening Earth Society, believe that carbon dioxide emissions are good for the environment. That view is shared by a number of conservative thinkers as well. Thomas Gale More, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, says global warming is no big whoop. In his book, "Climate of Fear," Moore argues that "If global warming were to occur, it would not be the disaster that many doomsayers have predicted. Instead, most people would actually benefit from the slightly higher temperatures it would produce." Other conservative think tanks, like the Cato Institute, are also filled with thinkers who argue the fear of global warming is much ado about nothing.

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But most scientists don't see it that way. Neither does the Environmental Protection Agency, whose Web site points to data that global warming is indeed occurring, including the rise of global temperatures, increased global precipitation and the rise in sea levels 6 to 8 inches in the last century. "Approximately 2-5 cm (1-2 inches) of the rise has resulted from the melting of mountain glaciers. Another 2-7 cm has resulted from the expansion of ocean water that resulted from warmer ocean temperatures," the site says.

Bush's dismissive comments about global warming could bolster the charge that he and fellow oilman Dick Cheney are in the pocket of the oil industry, which likewise pooh-poohs the issue.


Salon Staff

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