One last debate

Salon's young readers make Bush and Gore answer questions that Jim Lehrer neglected to ask.

Published November 6, 2000 9:00AM (EST)

Did the presidential debates leave you with more questions? It did for many Salon readers, who answered our call to submit questions to both Al Gore and George W. Bush for our 2000 Presidential Youth Debate.

Our readers wanted answers to questions you wouldn't imagine Jim Lehrer ever asking: questions about each candidate's alleged problems with substance abuse; about gay marriage and civil rights; proof that the death penalty works; and the candidates' own less-than impressive records on key issues.

And the candidates answered us. Sort of. Al Gore, perhaps as expected, was the windier of the two, and responded lengthily to each question -- you decide whether he actually answered every question. George W. Bush, on the other hand, simply chose not to respond to two questions, and ignored parts of others. With a few exceptions, he kept his responses brief and to the point.

The youth debate is the brainchild of New York writer Anthony Tedesco, who has wrangled answers out of the top two candidates for a second straight election (Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, it should be pointed out, both declined our invitation). Tedesco explains his thinking behind the youth debate here.

The questions come from Salon readers who are under 30 (we took their word for it) who answered our call for questions, and two friends of Tedesco's, political pundits Farai Chideya and Deroy Murdock, got the ball rolling with questions of their own.

What follows are the questions and the candidate responses, uncut:

1. In the decades since Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court has ruled that districts cannot be forced to use means such as busing and magnet schools to enforce desegregation orders. Today, the majority of black children attend majority-black schools, and many other children go to schools where racial integration is still a dream. If you still believe in that dream, what will you do -- with laws and concrete actions -- to make educational integration a reality? -- Farai Chideya, debate co-moderator

Bush: [The governor did not respond to this question.]

Gore: Brown vs. Board of Education has done a lot to increase diversity in our schools, but there are still too many kids that don't benefit from a diverse educational environment. All too often these children are also isolated in failing schools. I pledge to continue to rigorously enforce civil rights laws to ensure opportunities for all our children.

I'm not satisfied when any children are trapped in a poor school without the guidance and resources they need to learn. All children should have access to a high-quality education. I want to make improvements in all of our schools, and especially under-performing schools, to give children of all backgrounds the chance at a world-class education. I will finish hiring 100,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes so that students can get more one-on-one time with teachers, and I will help local communities construct new schools, fix failing schools and modernize classrooms so that all students can benefit from a quality classroom.

We must also provide parents with more choices to suit their children's needs. This will help support diversity in our public school systems and improve the quality of education. I will triple investment in charter schools to give parents an alternative, and support greater choice for parents within the public school system.

2. Amid all the talk about "working families" and "leaving no child behind," both of you have said virtually nothing to the 46.6 million single American adults. Please explain why you have treated this massive voting bloc with such neglect, and how your tax cut proposals will benefit the millions of hardworking single adults who lack mortgages or children to place in day care or college. -- Deroy Murdock, debate co-moderator.

Bush: Deroy, unlike my opponent's targeted tax plan which leaves out 50 million Americans, my tax plan helps all working Americans, including single adults. I think that every American deserves a tax cut. First I will simplify the tax code and replace our current system of five tax rates (15, 28, 31, 36 and 39.6 percent), with four lower ones (10, 15, 25 and 33 percent).

I will also raise the income needed before a tax is required. Six million families earning less than $31,000 per year that currently pay taxes will no longer pay any taxes under my plan, and with my tax cuts everyone who pays taxes will pay less, and will be able to keep more of their hard-earned money. To see an estimate of how much money you would save in federal taxes, please refer to the tax calculator on my Web site.

In addition, one of my priorities is to make sure the Social Security system is safe, secure and solvent. I have proposed a plan to reform Social Security for future generations. But at the root of that plan is the guarantee that those seniors who are currently receiving Social Security, or are close to retiring, will continue to receive their Social Security checks. For them, my reforms simply assure that they will continue to receive the money that they are depending on from month to month.

However, without reform, Social Security will go bankrupt in 2037. This means that there is no guaranteed benefit for future retirees. In order to save Social Security for the next generation, I will lead a bipartisan effort to reform it by giving individuals the option of voluntarily investing a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts. These accounts will earn higher rates of return and generate wealth that can be owned and passed on from parents to their children. I believe younger workers should have the option of setting up their own savings account for their own retirement. But I oppose any government investment in private stocks or bonds.

Gore: That's a great question, Deroy. My plans do focus on the family, but be assured that my plans for tax relief are available to all middle-class taxpayers. In fact, my Retirement Savings Plus accounts allow any middle-class taxpayer to save for retirement tax-free and receive government incentives that could help build a retirement nest-egg of up to $200,000. Even though my plan is smaller to fit within a balanced budget, it can actually benefit middle-class taxpayers more than Governor Bush's massive cut.

A single taxpayer with no children can benefit from almost all of my plans. Anyone in the workforce who wishes to go back to school to learn new skills can benefit from my proposed 401(k) accounts and my plans to make up to $10,000 a year of tuition tax-deductible. If you are caring for an elderly parent, my plan provides a $3,000 long-term care tax credit.

My tax plan is focused on the middle class and is designed to reflect those values. Governor Bush's plan targets the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Almost half of Bush's tax cuts are targeted to benefit the few Americans who make more than $300,000 a year. He gives them an average of $46,000 a year at the expense of the majority of middle-class families who, on average, would get 62 cents a day. That's certainly not the kind of change I'm fighting for.

3. Was former President Bush right to resign from the NRA? -- Tony O.

Bush: [The governor declined to answer this question.]

Gore: Tony, I think that is President Bush's decision, and not something I should judge one way or the other. I certainly respect the 2nd Amendment and the rights of hunters and sportsmen, but I think we can take sensible steps to make guns safer and save lives.

I am in favor of common-sense measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children. I want to keep guns out of school, putting safety and discipline back in the classroom. Trigger locks can prevent accidents and help teach responsible gun ownership.

4. It's been alleged in many reports that both of you have done drugs (Vice President Gore admitted on MTV to smoking pot), and you didn't have to go to jail. There are thousands of people just like you who were caught and didn't have fancy attorneys, and are now stuck in jail with unfair sentences because of the "drug war." Studies suggest that the drug war has been a massive failure. What are you going to do to reform these failing policies and help the people who have been unfairly punished? -- S. Rhoades

Bush: I believe that the president has a responsibility to confront the problem of illegal drug abuse because drugs are destroying our neighborhoods and ruining lives. We should confront this scourge with a balanced policy of education, treatment and law enforcement (see this issue page on my Web site). We must teach children that using drugs is bad and will lead to a life of self-destruction.

I understand that we live in a culture with a lot of temptations and a lot of challenges for kids and parents. Government can't solve the problems of our country, but it can be an ally of parents. It can reflect, not undermine, the ideals of parents. Government can give parents practical tools to raise responsible children.

Gore: We ought to put more emphasis on drug prevention and education. Although we must maintain strong laws and enforcement, there are things we can do to eliminate drug use that go beyond simple prohibition and prosecution. We need to send a strong message to every American child: Drugs are wrong, and drugs can kill you.

We have seen impressive evidence suggesting that we are making progress in the war on drugs. We have increased drug arrests by 46 percent and seen a nearly 50 percent drop in drug use since 1979. Adult drug use is down 39 percent since 1992, and use among young people has been cut by nearly a quarter over the last few years.

5. What reason do you see to continue the embargo against Cuba, evidence that this is a strong foreign policy instrument and what threat does Cuba currently pose to the U.S.? -- J. Franklin

Bush: I believe we should keep the embargo in place until freedoms are in place. I don't trust Fidel Castro. Castro is repressive. He subjugates the Cuban people to poverty. I believe America should continue to press on him until there are free prisoners, free speech and free institutions.

Gore: The embargo against Cuba is an important part of our policy of isolating and weakening the Castro regime. Fidel Castro has shown no signs that he is willing to move toward democracy. His brutal repression continues to threaten the safety and security of his own people, and he insists on holding on to the last dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.

6. The institution of marriage confers upon its participants civil and legal rights that heterosexual citizens take for granted, such as immigration rights, hospital visitation rights and interstate inheritance. The question is this: Do you support these rights for same-sex couples, and if so, what measures do you think are appropriate to assure their protection? -- Edward H.

Bush: I oppose gay marriage. I believe that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman.

Gore: Let me be clear, Edward. I support traditional marriage, and I support equal protections for gays and lesbians.

My opponent doesn't support equal protections. When he was asked about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) during the second debate, he said and I quote, "Well, I have no idea." I do support ENDA and am proud to have been a part of the administration that has appointed more openly gay and lesbian individuals to all levels of government than any in history.

My opponent doesn't support expanding hate crimes legislation to protect gays and lesbians. He opposed a state level bill as governor of Texas. I will continue to fight for stronger laws that protect all Americans from vicious crimes of hate.

7. (For Bush only) Why can't Bush defend his record in Texas on health care, the environment (No. 1 in pollution released by manufacturing plants, pollution by industrial plants in violation of the Clean Air Act and greenhouse gas emissions according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), Texas teen drug use (down nationally, but up 30 percent in Texas according to the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse), teacher's salaries plus benefits (last of the 50 states according to the National Education Agency) and spending on police protection (47th according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Also, why does he always change the subject and make a legitimate question concerning his record sound like an attack on his heart and soul? -- [unsigned]

Bush: There have been a lot of rumors about the condition of Texas. So many in fact, that we created a page on my Web site just to set the record straight. Some of your concerns are discussed below:

Texas under Governor Bush:

  • First in student improvement on test scores, especially for African-American and Hispanic students. (National Education Goals Panel)
  • First in reducing the amount of releases and disposal of toxics. (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission)
  • First in the nation to allow a patient to appeal an HMO's decision to deny care. (SB 386, 75th Legislature)
  • First to create a prison ministry to help offenders reintegrate into society. (InnerChange Freedom Initiative, Prison Fellowship, Program began April 1997)
  • Third state in the country to require reduction of harmful pollution from older, unpermitted utility plants. (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission)
  • One of only 10 "highly successful" states in reducing welfare rolls between 1995 and 1998.
  • Fourth in growth in total personal income. (Department of Commerce)
  • Ninth in teacher pay, when adjusted for cost of living and teacher experience. (Texas Education Agency; Texas Governor's Office of Budget and Planning)
  • $1.8 billion investment in healthcare initiatives. (Appropriations Bill, 76th Legislature)
  • 1.2 million jobs created, representing more than 10 percent of new jobs created nationwide and 48,000 new businesses. (Texas Workforce Commission; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Texas Department of Economic Development)
  • Lowest unemployment rate in 20 years -- 4.7 percent. (Legislative Budget Board, Texas Fact Book, January 2000; Texas Comptroller, Texas Economic Indicators, 1980-2000; Texas Workforce Commission, "Texas Unemployment 1970-Present")
  • Doubled the number of adoptions of abused and neglected children in Texas. (Texas Protective and Regulatory Services Press Release)

7. (For Gore only) Why have the price of the 50 drugs most frequently prescribed to the elderly increased by an average of 6.6 percent over the previous year (four times faster than the rate of inflation)? And why the price of 42 of the top 50 drugs increased faster than the rate of inflation when in 1992 Clinton and Gore promised to "bring down prescription drug prices" in their policy book "Putting People First"? Also, why should we believe him this time when he promises to bring down prescription drug prices? -- Michael H.

Gore: Prescription drug prices are sky high, and they have risen too much over the past few years. The industry says that most of the revenue from these price hikes is going into research and development for new drugs, but research shows that the big drug companies are actually spending more on advertising. While we need to support important research, we need to bring down the price of prescription drugs by helping bring safe generics to the market and reforming our healthcare system.

Today, 13 million Americans in Medicare have no prescription drug coverage, and millions more have coverage that is spotty, or too expensive. That's just wrong, and together, we can change it.

I've put forward a plan that includes a prescription drug benefit for everyone under Medicare. Under my prescription drug plan, if you choose to participate, you can go to your own local pharmacy and get all the medicine your doctor prescribes for you. You get to see your doctor, and your doctor is the one who decides what medicine is right for you. Nobody has to go to an HMO, and no big drug company can veto that choice or take it away.

My plan isn't just for the hardest-pressed. It's for everyone in Medicare. It covers half the cost of all medicines up to $5,000 and all out of pocket expenses over $4,000. That's the kind of prescription drug benefit we need.

My opponent's plan is backed by the drug industry. It leaves out millions and would raise Medicare premiums, forcing many into HMOs. There are some big choices at stake in this election. Will we support a prescription drug benefit for everyone on Medicare that will help bring down the price of prescription drugs for everyone, or will we support a plan that leaves out millions? I want to make sure our prosperity benefits all Americans, and not just a wealthy few.

8. Why do you support spending billions of dollars on a missile defense system when the scientific community is almost unanimous in their opinion that it will not work -- not to mention the disruption such a system would cause with our relationships with the rest of the world? -- Michael B.

Bush:Given today's realities, we can no longer drag our feet on building and deploying a missile defense system; nor can we allow Cold War arms control agreements to restrict America's ability to defend itself and its allies. America's development of missile defenses is a search for security, not a search for advantage. America must build effective missile defenses, based on the best available options, at the earliest possible date.

Our missile defense must be designed to protect all 50 states -- and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas -- from missile attacks by rogue nations, or accidental launches. To make this possible, we will offer Russia the necessary amendments to the anti-ballistic missile treaty -- an artifact of Cold War confrontation.

Both sides know that we live in a different world from 1972, when the ABM treaty was signed. If Russia refuses the changes we propose, we will give prompt notice, under the provisions of the treaty, that we can no longer be a party to it. If elected president, I will have a solemn obligation to protect the American people and our allies, not to protect arms control agreements signed almost 30 years ago.

Gore: I'm happy to answer this, Michael, because your question highlights the differences between my plan for defending America and the reckless, dangerous plan of my opponent. I think we need to keep investing in the technology to make sure that any system we have actually works. If it doesn't work, it obviously won't protect us from real or potential threats. My opponent says he'll build a massive missile defense system, whether it works or not. That would be a huge waste of taxpayer money.

As for whether the system will disrupt our relations with the rest of the world, I will not allow our system to destabilize our relations with other countries or spark a new arms race. That is why I want to convince the Russians to modify their arms control treaty with us. I'll show Russia and China that our system will not threaten them. My opponent's plan will severely disrupt arms control arrangements and launch a new arms race, damaging America's national security in the years to come.

9. Where do you stand on the concept of separation between church and state? Please include such specifics as:

(For Bush Only) Do you feel that your endorsement of "Jesus Day" in Texas and allowing faith-based groups to administer public funded juvenile justice programs, among others, blurs the church/state divide or is open to judicial review?

Bush: The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not exclude the role of religious beliefs in government. It only prohibits the establishment of an official state religion, or the favoring of one religion over another.

(For Gore Only) Both he and his vice presidential nominee have spoken frequently of their faith. Will this faith affect their policy decisions in a pluralistic society with atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.? -- Brian R.

Gore: I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, but for too long, national leaders have been trapped in a dead-end debate. Some on the right have said that a specific set of religious values should be imposed, threatening the founders' precious separation of church and state. In contrast, some on the left have said for too long that religious values should play no role in addressing public needs. These are false choices.

America's national identity is not shaped solely by our diverse faith traditions. But we are a people who believe that these traditions contribute to the formation of values with which we agree to live out our common lives together.

Our founders believed deeply in faith. They created the Bill of Rights in large measure to protect its free expression. One reason America is the most religious country on Earth is precisely because of the church-state divide: People who are free to worship as they wish worship more freely.

Our founders also knew history. They could look back on centuries of religious war in Europe that tore nations apart. They resolved that religious war should never tear this nation apart, and the only way to do that was to allow religious freedom.

The history of the United States has proven our founders' wisdom. They believed -- and I believe -- that we can protect against the establishment of religion without infringing in any way on its free exercise. That belief is at the very heart of our Constitution. And we must keep on working to make it a reality in our public life.

10. What proof, figures, statistics that you've studied, comprehended and can cite demonstrate a justification of your shared belief that the death penalty deters crime. -- Julien

Bush: When I was sworn in as governor of Texas, I took an oath to uphold the laws of our state, including the death penalty. My job is to ensure our state's laws are enforced fairly. This is a responsibility I take very seriously because the final determination of innocence and guilt is among the most profound and serious decisions a person can make.

I support the death penalty because I believe it saves lives. I believe that individual states should make every effort to ensure that their criminal justice systems are fair and impartial and that every defendant has full access to the state and federal courts. Any time DNA evidence, in the context of all the evidence, is deemed to be relevant in the guilt or innocence of a person on death row, I believe we need to use it.

Gore: I support the death penalty in the most heinous cases. I think that it has to be administered fairly and with careful attention to things like DNA evidence, which I think should be used in all capital cases.

By Salon Staff

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