Respond to this Article January/February, 2000

Presidential Aptitude Test

What you really need to know to pick a president

By Stephen Pomper and Nicholas Thompson

Campaign fatigue. There's almost a year left in Campaign 2000 and we've already got it bad. In a November poll by Harvard University, twice as many potential voters described the presidential campaign as "uninformative" as called it "informative." Nearly two-thirds of those polled also found the campaign "boring."

Maybe that's because the media seem to find it boring too. Instead of looking for provocative angles on the issues that matter, too many reporters have been distracted by peripheral issues or allowed themselves to arrive at the premature conclusion that the candidates are all the same.

You could see this theme percolating on the fringes of respectable journalism as early as July when Arianna Huffington observed that, "In a sense we now have one corporate party. We have the pro-life corporate party and the pro-choice corporate partyŠ"

The National Journal then picked up the ball in October with a cover that depicted Al Gore morphing into George Bush and back again and a story titled "Gush and Bore" which ruefully proclaimed: "The nation's two political parties have become so much alike that they don't really stand for much any more."

And just after Thanksgiving, The New York Times' Richard Berke weighed in that "the public's impression of candidates may be more important than ever in the campaign of 2000 because there is a dearth of raging issues dividing the parties."

Now whose fault is that?

There's at least the potential for interesting debate on the issues. Everybody knows that Al Gore has written a passionate book about the environment, that Bill Bradley has proposed to reinvent health care, that John McCain wants to grab every Senator and hang him upside down until the change falls out of his pockets---and that George W. Bush seems happy to scramble around on the floor to scarf it up.

If that's all true, how can these guys really be the same?

The answer is that, of course, they're not. Sameness is a convenient fiction. It allows reporters to write fun softball pieces that distinguish the candidates on less than substantive grounds. They can even try on new professions like Walter Mitty. For example, in November, National Review's Richard Brookhiser channeled the spirit of Sigmund Freud to arrive at the conclusion that Al Gore is "depressed because he feels dead" and that this explains his focus on the environment. And U.S. News and World Report's Roger Simon recently took a turn as CNN fashion reporter Elsa Klensch to slash away at Bill Bradley for affecting suits that "look like they cost the lives of several polyesters" and shirts "of a bluish hue not found in nature." The guy wears bad clothes and wants to be our president? Imagine.

Let's be clear: We don't expect the campaign press to spend the next eleven months performing regression analyses on the candidates' budget proposals. Of course the public is entitled to learn something about the personal qualities of the man who will occupy the most powerful office on the planet. But it's surely a stretch from this to the position that campaign strategy on matters like wardrobe is the same thing as campaign news. And there's a real problem with giving too much air-time to silly stuff: It crowds out attention to the more important issues and leaves the public unprepared to sort through them when the mud starts flying. Indeed, shallow coverage of the issues is almost an invitation for campaigns to take the low road. Read what a Gore staffer said to U.S. News' Simon:

"Bradley has authenticity? O.K., so he's real, he's a great guy, he's the thinking man's candidate. But most voters don't vote that way. Everybody says negative ads are terrible and trashing somebody is terrible---but it works!Š The brie-and-cheese [sic] set, the thinking voters will always be there, and they'll be for Bradley. But heat wins elections, and Gore is going to put the heat on Bradley."

More than anything, that's an indictment of the press. After all, it's part of our job to help transform voters into "thinking voters." And the best way to do that is to hammer away at the issues.

Here's one attempt to do just that on a short list of issues that matter the most: How will the candidate pay for good government? Will he protect the uninsured? How will he save social security? Will he really be an education president? Will he be able to handle an international crisis? Will he fix our environmental laws? Is he in favor of auctions or elections? Can he run the government? In the spirit of competition, we've given the four leading candidates grades on each question. We gave points for the political courage, technical competence, and vision. Did we give extra credit for wearing natural fibers? Not a chance.

How will he pay for good government?

Government costs money. You've got to pay for air-traffic controllers, national infrastructure projects, and funding the Center for Disease Control. We've got to have an army; we've got to pay government lawyers to fight monopolies. We need billions of dollars to fix our health-care system and billions more to hire and train the teachers we need to turn our educational system around.

To many politicians in 1999, the budget surplus is the solution to funding everything the government needs to, and should, pay for. New health-care system? We'll fund it out of the projected surplus. How about a middle-class tax cut? Just dip into that big tub of hypothetical cash.

But all this talk of surplus financing is misleading. Roughly two-thirds of the projected surplus comes from excess Social Security revenues that will have to be locked away for the day when the trust fund starts to run in the red. (See "How will he save social security?") As for the remaining third, we're not holding our breaths. For it to materialize, Congress will have to honor uncomfortably tight spending caps that it can easily blow through using accounting tricks, the economy will have to continue to perk along, and Medicare costs will have to stay under control.

You can't count on the surplus any more than you can count on Congress to keep its budget promises or the economy to stay strong. So, to run the government and to pay for the programs the candidates are proposing, the next administration will probably have to close tax loopholes, raise taxes, or both. Given their likelihood, we should be thinking about these options now.

Start with the loopholes: The tax code is riddled with subsidies that cost billions of dollars a year. Businessmen enjoy tax-deductible meals and entertainment to the annual tune of six billion tax-payer dollars; an 1872 law allows mining companies to purchase federal land for $5 an acre without having to pay any royalties back to the government; investors can rack up tax-free capital gains by purchasing their stocks through special accounts called Roth IRAs. These subsidies do little to redistribute wealth to the people who really need it. So get rid of them.

As for raising taxes, there's one group that's been doing quite well lately: the very rich. Ninety percent of increased wealth since 1977 has gone to the richest one percent of Americans and the top marginal tax rate on these families is only about half of what it was for most of the post-war era. During the same period, the poor have gotten 12 percent poorer. In our era of Seattle robber barons and NASDAQ billionaires, there's room to give more to the people who are

really in need.


The Gore campaign didn't want to talk about raising taxes in an election year so it molded its spending program to fit within the projected surplus. This let Gore serve up a trillion dollar spending program without appearing to cost American taxpayers one additional dime, but it also backed him into a corner. Health care, childcare, and education need to be fixed, regardless of whether the repair costs can be cooked into conformity with the surplus. If the surplus doesn't materialize, he would probably have to raise taxes---a position his campaign recently started to accept.

That said, Gore has a strong record on taxes and trimming fat. He voted for the 1986 Tax Reform Act that lowered taxes for the general public while eliminating real estate and corporate tax shelters. The '86 legislation was largely Bradley's work, but Gore did his rival one better: He supported an amendment that would have increased the top marginal tax rate from 28 to 35 percent---an amendment that Bradley opposed. Gore also voted for a 1991 increase in the top marginal rate. And he gets some credit for the administration's 1993 tax reform that raised the top marginal rate to its current level and was instrumental in reducing and eliminating the deficit.

Grade: B


Bradley's position on taxes is a bit slippery. Unlike Gore, he has never ruled out raising taxes to fund his ambitious spending program, but he won't say more than that. When we asked a Bradley spokesperson, Kristin Ludecke, whether the candidate was actually contemplating a tax raise, she said absolutely not---he's "completely confident" that his health-care plan wouldn't require it.

We then asked whether the tax increase was something he was holding in reserve in case the economy goes south. The answer was "no" again; under those circumstances, Bradley would favor actually cutting taxes as a way to stimulate the economy. So when would we be looking at a possible tax hike? "That's a couple of hypotheticals away from reality," she said.

Bradley's record is a similarly mixed bag. Bradley was the key man on passing the 1986 Tax Reform Act, but there's more to the story. The deal behind the Act was that Congress would close corporate loopholes worth tens of billions of dollars but give something back to the monied classes by lowering the top marginal tax rate to 28 percent, its lowest post-war level. The Act called for the rate to drop in stages, with the final dip to 28 percent in 1988. In 1987, however, the Senate Finance Committee realized that this last step would cause the deficit to balloon up. There was a politically expedient solution: arrest the rate at its 1987 level of 38 percent---a move that could save the Treasury billions of dollars without being portrayed as a tax hike. The majority on the Committee supported this approach but Bradley made an impassioned and successful appeal to stick to the original deal. The deficit surged up and it took the Clinton administration's tax reform bill of 1993 to bring it back down.

Grade: B


George Bush wants to cut taxes, mostly for the rich. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, two-thirds of the tax breaks in Bush's recent tax proposal (starting with a decrease in the top marginal rate) are targeted to the richest 10 percent of Americans. The bottom 10 percent would get a reduction of about $43 a year; the wealthiest one percent would get a reduction of $50,000 a year. That's not as bad as the tax cut proposed last year by Trent Lott, Dick Armey, and the Republican Congress, but it's pretty baldly regressive and we shouldn't be surprised. Texas has one of the most regressive state tax systems in America.

In Bush's defense, the governor did slightly increase social spending in his state, but during the flushest of economic times when few sacrifices were necessary and when he could cut taxes, his clear priority during the campaign---at the same time.

Grade: D


On the one hand, John McCain's tax rhetoric is strong. He criticized Governor Bush's proposed tax cut on the grounds that it would bleed the government dry and he has discussed a proposal of his own that would reduce lower-middle class taxes, but not top marginal tax rates. And he was critical of the proposed Republican tax cut of 1999. But underneath it all, McCain is a party man. He voted with the Republican majority for the 1999 tax cut. And his minimalist approach to taxation has won him the National Taxpayer's Union "Taxpayer's Friend Award" on four separate occasions.

McCain's slash and burn approach to pork barrel spending would no doubt save the government some money that could be spent on worthier projects. But we doubt that McCain's inner Republican would let him raise top marginal tax rates under any circumstances and Republicans have already gotten him to go along again with regressive tax cuts once; they might well be able to do it again.

Grade: C+

How will he protect the


American health care needs a doctor. Forty-four million Americans, including 11 million children, don't have health insurance. In the richest country on earth, one in six people can't get a physical exam and can't make a doctor's appointment. Efforts to insure these people by incrementally expanding the healthcare plans currently offered by the government simply can't work, as David Nather explains elsewhere in this issue. (See "Beyond Band-Aids.")

We need universal health coverage; and the best way to accomplish it would be to scrap the current jumble of Medicaid, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Medicare and transition to a single payer national health service like Canada's. If we did that, we'd cut costs through economies of scale, reduce administrative costs by eliminating insurance paperwork, and create a portable benefits system that would follow people when they move between jobs and around the country.

If the leap to single payer is too big, an alternative would be to let the public in on the deal that Congressman and federal bureaucrats already enjoy by making all Americans eligible for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP)---a giant health-care program that pools hundreds of private plans and uses economies of scale to get better bargains and increased health options for members. Of course, some people wouldn't be able to afford the cost of FEHBP even if they were allowed to buy in. Subsidize them.


Al Gore joined the administration's push for universal health care when he came into office but he doesn't want it now. He currently supports the expansion of CHIP, the provision of tax subsidies for small-business employees and other uncovered employees, and the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare---proposals limited by his requirement that they, and the other initiatives he has put on the table, fit within the projected surplus. His proposals would insure 11 million children through incremental reform, but wouldn't get us close to universal coverage.

Gore's proposal isn't meritless: It's just cautious and uninspired. What is meritless, however, is Gore's strategy of relentlessly criticizing Bradley for proposing to replace Medicaid. Gore wants us to believe that Bradley will eliminate Medicaid and leave nothing in its place. That's not true. "I don't understand it," says Bob McIntyre at Citizens for Tax Justice. "If somebody takes your Honda and leaves a BMW in its place, it's not quite right to say that the Honda's been eliminated."

Grade: B-


Calling it a BMW may be going a bit far, but Bradley's proposal is certainly big, bold, and expensive.

The core of Bradley's plan is making health care available to 95 percent of Americans by providing scaled subsidies to families with incomes of less than $50,000 a year to buy approved private coverage or join FEHBP. He would also open FEHBP to all Americans, regardless of whether they are already insured. In order to achieve universal coverage of children up to 18, Bradley would require parents to buy insurance for their kids. And like Gore, he would expand Medicare to include an optional prescription drug benefit (although Bradley's would cover more catastrophic, and fewer low-end, expenditures).

Bradley aims high but it's not clear how well the program will work. His subsidies may not actually be enough to pay for the coverage he promises and his costs may be higher than they need to be since he makes subsidies available to families that are already insured through work. And the proposal to make coverage of children mandatory may be unrealistic---particularly given that Bradley has said he wouldn't favor punishing parents who fail to get their kids insured.

Bradley's people may not have figured out the technicalities, but the idea of opening up FEHBP is a good one and we give Bradley points for taking on a big subject in a big way: A for political courage and B- for technical merit.

Grade: B+


Governor Bush has talked a good game about health care: "It's not a party issue, it's an issue that needs to be addressed." But he didn't do much for health care in Texas. And he seems unlikely to do much for the rest of the country.

Texas has the second highest rate of uninsured children in the country and Bush has not been enthusiastic about turning this around. When the state legislature proposed that Texas' CHIP money be available for children of families earning no more than 200 percent of the poverty line, Bush fought hard to draw the line at 150 percent. Thankfully, he failed.

Bush has not come out with a national reform proposal, but his choice of advisers suggests a preference for market-based reform, not universal coverage. Bush's top adviser on health care, Deborah Steelman, doubles as a lobbyist for HMOs like Aetna and United Health Care. Another adviser, John Goodman, is known for pushing a proposal that would provide citizens with vouchers to pay for HMOs.

One positive consideration: While most Americans can't sue their HMOs, they can in Texas, thanks to an initiative pushed by Governor Bush that he'd like to make into a national program. That's something, but it won't help the uninsured.

Grade: D+


McCain supported Senator John Chafee's reform proposal in 1991 but disappeared during the great national debates and has only recently started to talk about health care again. He has offered a campaign proposal that would give limited grants to low-income elderly people to help them pay for prescription drug and he has even talked about expanding CHIP. But even today, he has not made the issue a strong priority and he has trouble staying on topic.

Here is McCain's response to health-care questions raised a few minutes after Orrin Hatch had been discussing the Internet (a subject McCain really likes) during the first Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire:

Moderator: "Senator McCain, several major HMOs are failing financially. The system isn't working. What do you propose to fix it?"

Senator McCain: "We need a Patient's Bill of Rights, and the reason why we haven't gotten it through the Congress is because on the Democrat side the trial lawyers have them in their control and they'll want to sue anybody for anything under any circumstance. On the Republican side, we're in the grip of the huge money from the insurance companies and the HMOs---the typical gridlock which has caused Americans to have such a low opinion of what goes on in Washington."

Not bad. But then he veers off-topic.

"The Internet should not be taxed. The Internet should not be taxed. The Internet is the greatest thing that's happened to the world---somewhere between the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolutionŠ"

After another 100 words endorsing the Internet, the bell sounded and the moderator tried again:

Moderator: "Let me return to the issue of health care and HMOs. Given how expensive health care is, HMOs are now waking up to the fact that they can't deliver the promises they made to consumers and still be profitable. If, ultimately, HMOs disappear, what then fills the void?"

McCain: "Obviously, the HMOs need to be made whole. We need to spend more money to make sure that they do. We have added more money for Medicare and Medicaid payments in the last emergency supplements that we passed. All of those things have to be done, but I believe we have to take care of patients first. And if the patients are not well treated in HMOs, then obviously then the HMOs are not going to be sought out by them. Again, on the Internet, we need to install---we are installing in every schoolŠ"

The Internet is important. But so is health care.

Grade: D+

How will he save social security?

Senior citizens have one huge electoral advantage over other groups: They vote. This goes a long way toward explaining why the federal government puts roughly four times more money into social security than it gives to children under eighteen. Right now, social security is swimming in cash. That's because the system is funded out of payroll taxes and the number of workers paying those taxes vastly exceeds the number of pensioners collecting benefits. In fact, social security is projected to run a $1.8 trillion surplus over the next ten years. But as the baby-boom generation retires, the surplus is going to be swallowed fast---so fast that the Congressional Budget Office projects a social security deficit of $19.8 trillion between 2013 and 2075.

This means that our children are going to be stuck with a 19.8 trillion bill that they will presumably have to pay by raising payroll taxes or cutting benefits. That's unfair to the next generation. And because the social security payroll tax is regressive (you're only taxed on the first $72,000 you earn regardless of whether you dig ditches or run Microsoft) it's also unfair to the working poor.

So how do you fix social security? Start with two principles: Any solution should be progressive and generationally fair. This would require means testing---which in its most dramatic form would say that if you need benefits, you get them and if you don't, you won't; less dramatically, means testing could also include taxing wages over $72,000, or recapturing benefits to high earners through higher income taxes. Then raise the retirement age so that people don't start collecting benefits until they are 70: When social security was conceived the average life expectancy was 62---now it's 76. People live longer, they should be able to work longer. Any remaining shortfalls could be made up through "nipping and tucking"---cutting benefits by lowering cost of living increases and adjusting the payout formula. It might also be a good idea to invest some portion of payroll tax revenues in the stock market---but not all of them; social security should be a government insurance program, not a national mutual fund.


The vice president proposes to buy back government debt with accumulated social security reserves. This shows fiscal prudence (it will lower the government's short-term interest expenses and will make it easier to finance payments when social security goes into the red) but it's misleading to pose it as a solution to the overall problem. Gore's approach may save $1.8 trillion for a rainy day, but it won't help cover the future $19.8 trillion deficit---which is the amount that social security will be in the red after the $1.8 trillion is applied. When we asked a top Gore adviser what the candidate intended to do about the $19.8 trillion, we were told that the question isn't really fair, and that "It's absurd to solve the problems of an entirely different generation."

We disagree.

Grade: C


Bradley's position on social security is perfectly reasonable as far as it goes. But it doesn't go far enough.

To Bradley's credit, he accepts the premise that future deficits are a problem. He is also willing to talk about the tough choices that need to be made to address those deficits now---reducing benefits, raising taxes, raising the retirement age, and privatization.

But that's as far as it goes. Bradley does not have a specific plan for fixing social security and will not even let on which of the repair options he supports. Instead, according to a Bradley spokeswoman,Kristen Ludecke, Bradley's position is that this will have to be worked out by "reasonable people sitting around a table."

That's a little weak. The issue has been debated exhaustively on Capitol Hill for the last two years, and there has been no meaningful progress. There may not be such a thing as "reasonable people sitting around a table" when it comes to social security. That's why the system has to be fixed through political leadership---and why Bradley will have to stop explaining what the issues are and start telling us what he thinks.

Grade: C+


Bush, like most Republicans, believes that social security could be saved if we would just start investing it in the market. But also like most Republicans, Bush hasn't thought through one huge problem: What happens if the market crashes? Asked by Tim Russert what he would do in this situation, Bush responded vaguely: "There will be guarantees and I'm confident a plan will have a guaranteed benefit level for all people."

Bush has also shown some courage on the issue, proposing to examine the possibility of raising the age of entitlement to 70. Bush, however, doesn't believe in means testing: "If you're paying into the system, you ought to be able to get something out of the system. And millionaires and billionaires pay into the system."

Grade: C-


McCain's views are standard Republican fare---privatize social security and everything will be fine. But McCain's got one additional twist: He comes from a state with a lot of old people, and he likes to stick by them. In 1998 he proposed "The Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act" that would eliminate much of the limited means testing that there is in our current social security system: for every $3 that a senior citizen earns over $20,000, she loses $1 in social security benefits.

To his credit, McCain would be adamant about preventing government from stealing from the surplus to pay for current programs. But, like Gore, McCain's not addressing the looming deficit problem.

Grade: C-

Will he really be an education president?

There's nothing pretty about American education. American students are lagging behind the rest of the world, teachers often lack the capacity to teach them, and federal reforms aren't turning the problem around fast enough. So what do we do?

First, start at the beginning. Studies released over the past six years demonstrate that the most important educational opportunities occur before formal schooling begins. The programs we have now---whether you call them daycare or Head Start or something else---are grossly inadequate. Millions of the children who come from the most educationally and economically disadvantaged families have no enriching daycare or Head Start program. Millions more are in inadequate programs often with radically underpaid teachers. If the system wants to be fair to these children and give them an equal shot at the educational opportunities that the middle and upper classes take for granted, then billions of dollars of funding will need to be channeled into childcare and Head Start programs.

The next priority is getting better teachers into the classroom. The federal government should use its education budget to create incentives for states to boost entry-level salaries so that they will attract better and brighter applicants to teaching. States should also provide meaningful teacher training programs along the lines recently proposed by Wisconsin's superintendent of schools (see "Tilting at Windmills"). This means screening applicants for subject area knowledge and public speaking ability---skills that are indispensable to good teaching---and then making sure that young teachers get the mentoring, evaluation, and feedback they need to hone their skills. States should also be encouraged to replace lockstep salary systems with performance-based compensation so that motivated people get rewarded and the deadwood don't. Finally, states have to be encouraged to find creative ways to get rid of underperformers. They should be urged to dispense with the tenure systems that allow the deadwood to build up.

Finally, tighten up the reforms passed during the Clinton administration. These include laws that give states money if they adopt curriculum standards and if they authorize the creation of charter schools---independent public schools where dynamic teachers get a chance to exercise creative control. The Clinton reforms make it too easy for states to get standards funding with meaningless standards and charter schools funding without serious commitment to charter schools.

An education president will have to have enormous commitment because both political parties have anchors around their necks when it comes to reform. Democrats are beholden to the teachers' unions, who made up more than a tenth of the delegates to the 1996 Democratic Convention and tend to look unkindly on reforms that threaten the status quo. Republican support for states' rights makes them reluctant to push any national reforms.


Gore has a big proposal on early childcare---

universal pre-school for the older kids and tax credits to help out with the younger ones. While the package looks encouraging, the details have yet to emerge.

On other issues, Gore is like Clinton. That translates into a commitment to moving with conventional reforms as far as the unions permit---as with the charter schools legislation---and coming up with money for new teachers. You can see this in his proposal to attract up to 75,000 new teachers annually by offering college students and mid-career professionals $10,000 bonuses for committing to careers in teaching.

The question is whether Gore is serious about making certain that those teachers are any good. His campaign literature recognizes the need for improving teacher quality, but the specific proposals could be stronger. On the plus side, he recommends increasing "mentors and professional support" for young teachers, and giving bonuses to high-performing ones. On the minus side, he fails to come out against tenure and suggests that the education system should "help" bad teachers before removing them.

Furthermore, Gore has pandered to the unions by aggressively opposing vouchers. Vouchers raise difficult issues---particularly since they tend to take money away from schools that are doing the worst---but they shouldn't be excluded as a tool for helping poor children receive the education states are failing to provide. If Gore continues to cater to the unions on this and other issues then he is unlikely to accomplish more than watered-down educational reforms.

Grade: B


Like Gore, Bradley has big plans for early childcare: He would make $2 billion of block grants available each year to states and localities in a matching funds program. The money would be available for local childcare needs---building centers, improving training, hiring workers. It sounds promising, but the details have yet to emerge.

Also like Gore, Bradley has tiptoed around the teachers unions, softening the support for voucher programs he expressed in the Senate.

And in yet another parallel with Gore, Bradley wants to get more teachers into the classroom, but hasn't placed a lot of emphasis on how to make sure that they're effective. His objective is to hire 60,000 new teachers a year for the inner-city schools by offering scholarships to high school students who agree to take those positions after college. Those scholarships are particularly targeted at kids who will commit to teach math, science, and foreign languages. But the proposal would not require those scholarship students to actually major in the disciplines that they are going to teach. And it doesn't suggest that he's given any thought to improving teacher quality.

Grade: B


Texans give George Bush credit for two main things: being affable and reforming the education system. As governor, he helped push through a vouchers program, greatly increased Texas' state funding of public education, and expanded a testing and standards program that mandated that everyone from the third grade on up pass an aptitude test. He hasn't mandated that schools run their curricula a certain way; he has just demanded the test scores go up. He also backed and, by working across partisan lines, dramatically increased funding in his state for kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, and Head Start.

Bush's national goals would follow similar lines: increased federal funds for states that implement state-wide testing standards and vouchers for students whose schools fail. Good stuff, but Bush has not indicated that he wants to substantially increase federal funding overall (though he did increase state funding for education in Texas); he has only indicated that he wants to simplify funding to improve efficiency.

Grade: B+


John McCain has co-sponsored a bipartisan "Troops to Teachers" initiative that subsidizes teacher certification for qualifying veterans and has come up with good rhetoric on the issue of teacher training and merit pay---"We should help bad teachers find another line of work." He is also in favor of testing at the state level and opposes any sort of national test. But he doesn't have a history of moving legislation or a detailed plan that shows that the issue is a top priority. In fact, his one major reform effort was a hopeless Senate bill proposing to cut ethanol and sugar subsidies and to use the money to pay for vouchers for low income students. A great idea, but one with so little chance of passing that it's hard to see it as anything more than a stunt.

Grade: C+

Will he be able to handle an international crisis?

When it comes to international affairs, more than any other area, a president has to think on his feet and be able to react instinctively and decisively. What if Ukraine breaks up in civil war the same day India launches a bomb at Pakistan? What if a missile of ours mistakenly blows up a Chinese embassy? These issues can't be parsed with simple models. What matters is the president, his personality, and his political judgment.

Nobody can predict what will happen internationally over the next four years, but we do know what kind of man is least likely to drive our tanks over an international cliff. We need someone with a commitment to multilateral action, a sense of international purpose, and good instincts for resolving conflicting interests and principles. And although it may sound old-fashioned, it can't hurt for the commander-in-chief to have served. Service gives a perspective on conflict and the realities of war that just cannot be learned off the battlefield.


Al Gore has a consistent record as a Democratic hawk. He famously voted with only nine other Democratic senators in favor of sending U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf in 1991. At the time, there was great concern that the casualty rate would be too high and that the U.S. would stumble into another Vietnam. But the Arabian desert proved more hospitable to the U.S. war machine than the Vietnamese jungle and the doves (the Monthly among them) were proven wrong. Gore was proven right.

But while Gore was a hawk in the Gulf (and also with regard to U.S. intervention in the Balkans and Haiti) he also shows appreciation for strategic patience and multilateral action. He has been a stalwart defender of the administration's Russia policy---keeping lines of cash and communication open in order to stabilize an insecure nuclear power---and has pushed for increased engagement with China. He was instrumental in negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and he urges the payment in full of our U.N. dues.

The Clinton/Gore team has made mistakes---an information breakdown and, consequently, the decision to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan for example---but Gore's consistently strong judgment, plus two years of honorable service in Vietnam, make us believe he'd be pretty steady behind the wheel.

Grade: A-


The focus of Bradley's major campaign speech on foreign policy was more academic than practical---the U.S. should act through the U.N., emphasize multilateral action (like economic sanctions), and not presume to police the world---and he skipped the big questions. What would he do when multilateralism fails? What are the situations where he would use force? He didn't let us know. "I think the United States can get spread thin over a wide territory in this world." OK. But then which territories do deserve our attention?

Bradley's record in the Senate demonstrates that he did a lot of hard work in this area but leaves open questions about judgment. To his great credit, he worked assiduously to master details and push forward plans for international debt relief and free trade. But he invested huge amounts of energy in less worthy causes as well. In the 1980s he developed an interest in Nicaragua---working with the Reagan White House to develop a program for democratizing the Contras while providing them aid, and often being the only senator who showed up at Senate intelligence hearings on that subject. But for all that effort, Bradley ultimately found himself on the wrong side of the issue. He was wrong on the Gulf War as


Here is another quote from his most recent speech: "For fifty years, after the end of World War II and until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we were sure about one thing: we knew where we stood on foreign policyŠ But today when it comes to foreign policy, things are not so clear."

Exactly. We need someone with good judgment and a clear vision to make foreign policy decisions; and Bradley hasn't convinced us that he has either.

Grade: C+


You don't have to be a genius to succeed at foreign policy---look at Ronald Reagan---but you do have to care. And Bush doesn't seem like he's into it. When asked by Tim Russert about the START III agreement, he said: "That depends upon my advisers and the people who know a heck of a lot more about the subject than I do." That sounds pretty close to "whatever." One hopes that top advisers like Condoleeza Rice aren't out with the flu when Indonesian civil war breaks out.

But we don't even agree with the script that Bush's advisers give him. The governor's take on Russia is not constructive: "Our goal is to promote not only the appearance of democracy in Russia but the structures, spirits and reality of democracy. This is clearly not done by focusing our aid and attention on a corrupt and favored elite." We wouldn't want him to deliver those lines from the White House. Amnesty International can afford to alienate a huge, insecure nuclear power with this rhetoric. But coming from the president of the United States, these lines could make the world a more dangerous place. On China, Bush risks tying himself in contradictions: Treat them as a "strategic competitor" and demand human rights accountability but also increase trade; defend Taiwan at all costs but continue the one China policy. These issues can be resolved---but not by someone who doesn't care.

Grade: D-


John McCain has been shot down, had his legs broken, and his life threatened. He still can't lift his arms above his head because of five years of torture in a Vietnamese POW camp. No one is going to call him a wimp if he decides to stay out of a foreign battle and people aren't ever going to question his devotion to this country.

McCain also has a strong command of the central issues of foreign policy and he has served respectably on the Senate Armed Services Committee. During the Kosovo crisis he laid out a hard, consistent, and well-thought-out policy of strong intervention, even if at times he showed excessively hawkish reflexes. But he isn't a knee-jerk hawk: He has worked to normalize relations with Vietnam and he took a lonely stand against Ronald Reagan's decision to deploy troops in Lebanon and was proved right when a terrorist attack later killed 241 marines in their Beirut barracks.

McCain is stubborn, often disagreeable, and the people we've talked to in Arizona say that reports of a volcanic temper are accurate. Still, having a temper didn't stop Washington from being a great president and it didn't lead Eisenhower into rash international decisions. Plus, if any candidate knows the costs of war, it's McCain.

Grade: A-

Will he fix our environmental laws?

Environmental regulations in this country have been set up like a shower that gives frigid or scalding water, but nothing in between. Some of our laws are irrationally strong; many more are weak or sparsely enforced. This has left environmentalists in the awkward and ultimately alienating position of trying to use tangential laws to defend critical goals. The classic example of this was the crisis in Oregon where environmentalists used an owl that almost no one had ever seen, and the extremely restrictive Endangered Species Act, to prevent cutting in otherwise unprotected ancient forests. Few people thought the owl mattered, but there was no other way to protect the forests that did.

An environmental president needs to find a middle path. To do this, he first needs take the hard edges off the toughest environmental laws, by turning sticks into carrots and using market incentives to give corporations flexibility wherever possible. But this doesn't mean that he should give polluters a free ride. He also needs to strengthen the weakest laws and the enforcement of laws that we do have. The number of grand pronouncements by the EPA has increased in the past decade, but the amount of actual enforcement has gone down. This needs to change. There are serious environmental issues that need to be resolved in this country through controls---from keeping water supplies clean to protecting wilderness---and there are bad actors who will only make these problems worse if our weak laws are not strengthened and more vigorously enforced.


Since his election Al Gore has still been able to push forward a very sensible environmental agenda that balances practicality with the clear passion he showed in his effusive book, Earth in the Balance. He has gotten the U.S. to sign the Kyoto protocol on global warming and has advocated sensible market-based solutions that should make the treaty palatable to businesses. Similarly, Gore has worked with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to develop innovative land-conservation swaps with industry. The Clinton administration is also the first in history to push forward an environmental justice agenda, which means a focus on fighting for environmental issues when they can be combined with social issues like community water pollution and hazardous waste dumping. Obscure animals like the snail darter matter; polluted communities matter more.

Gore has been criticized by relatively radical environmental groups for abandoning the ideals of Earth in the Balance. There's some truth to that: EPA enforcement has gone down, and the vice president hasn't made the environment his number one priority. But most of the criticism simply comes because Gore's environmental ideals have matured to include compromise and business: two necessary parts of a successful environmental strategy.

Grade: A-


During his years in Congress, Bradley voted the correct way, according to the League of Conservation Voters' scorecard, 84 percent of the time, significantly more often than Gore. Bradley also has developed a reputation among environmentalists as someone who understands the complexities of the law and stands by his principles. One strong example was when, after Republicans grabbed control of Congress in 1994, Orrin Hatch of Utah attached an anti-environmental provision to a bill Bradley had written to protect the Sterling Forest in New York and New Jersey. Bradley had to choose between compromising the environment or compromising his own bill. He chose the latter. Several months later he wrote and got a different bill to protect the forest through the Senate.

Bradley does have one advantage over Gore: He is more willing to challenge subsidies to environmentally destructive entities like the sugar industry. But he hasn't shown the same ability as the vice president to develop compromise solutions to environmental problems.

Grade: A-


Air quality is improving rapidly in this country---but not in Texas. Water quality is improving rapidly too---but not in Texas. The Environmental Protection Agency is presently threatening to block highway funds worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Dallas and Fort Worth because of the two cities' persistent failure to meet clean-air standards. Houston has the worst smog levels in the country.

Governor Bush has not only taken a hands-off approach to environmental issues; he has allowed corporations with vested interests to put their hands on. In one notorious example, he allowed corporations that had been exempted from emissions standards to write their own "voluntary" regulations. At the meetings where they were writing their own legislation, one incredulous aide---according to an e-mail obtained by the Monthly---wrote that the oil companies had met with the governor and agreed that "the industry group and the Governor's Office would develop the program, then take it to some broad-based group, including public representatives, who would then tweak it a little bit and approve it." Grandfathered companies, their lobbyists and executives gave over one million dollars to Bush's campaigns for governor and president. It's not surprising that they got to write the legislation and the public only got to tweak it.

As a presidential candidate, Bush has been moving toward the center on this issue. When questioned about the governor's record, spokeswoman Mindy Tucker responded that his environmental record has actually "been something to be proud of" and faxed back an unconvincing list of accomplishments including one that read, "In 1995, Governor Bush proposed and signed one of the first private property rights laws in the nation. The law requires local and state governments to consider the impact of their rules and regulations on private property before enacting those rules." This bill, the "takings bill," has been criticized by environmentalists across the country for gutting every possible state environmental regulation. It's surprising, to say the least, that Bush would include it on a list of accomplishments.

Grade: D


John McCain often talks a good line on environmental issues. In 1996, in the throes of Republican belligerency against environmental regulations he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times arguing that the party shouldn't abandon the middle ground. One year ago, he gave a speech at the League of Conservation Voters claiming the mantle of conservationism, urging Republicans and Democrats to work together. He also has worked hard to protect wilderness lands in Arizona, continuing the work of one of his mentors, the legendary environmentalist Democratic Senator Morris Udall.

But words don't equal actions and, as senator, McCain has averaged a mere 20 percent rating with the League of Conservation Voters. By contrast, another Republican, Senator John Chafee, averaged a score of 70 percent over his career. McCain fought endangered species protection, tried to block wilderness expansion, and even supported Republican attempts to limit the EPA. McCain's campaign is also chaired by Chuck Hagel, the man leading the charge against ratifying the sensible and necessary Kyoto global warming treaty.

McCain does score some points because his commitment to eliminating government pork is likely to work in favor of environmental protections. He also has worked on the right side of environmental legislation in his state. And he does have an open door. As Deborah Callahan, President of the League of Conservation Voters says, "At least McCain is someone that we can have a conversation with."

Grade: B-

Is he in favor of elections not auctions?

In September and October of 1998, Brian Baird, a candidate for Congress in Washington, allowed a reporter to track him throughout every day. What did the reporter find? Baird was spending four hours a day making cold fundraising calls and just one hour a day talking to voters.

This isn't surprising. The rise of soft money and expensive television advertising has pushed the need for campaign funding to extraordinary proportions. Scholars estimate that total spending by candidates in the 1997-98 election cycle reached four billion dollars. What has all this spending done? For one, it has increased public cynicism and pushed voter turnout to a new nadir. And it also has made elections non-competitive. Two years ago, 98 percent of incumbent congressmen were able to use their fundraising machines to power themselves to reelection, outspending their opponents on average by five to one. Every incumbent won his party's nomination except Jay Kim of California, under house arrest for taking illegal campaign contributions. By the time we started to research this article, a former governor, a former vice president, and the popular former head of the American Red Cross had all dropped out of the Republican presidential campaign before a single vote had been cast, for one simple reason: They couldn't raise enough money.

This problem can be solved. Negative television advertising needs to be knocked out of the political system and free television time for candidates needs to be knocked in. One way to do the first would be to require candidates to appear in their television commercials. You want to criticize your opponent? You've got to do it face-to-face with your television audience. You can say anything you want, but not hidden behind millions of dollars of manufactured effects. To do the second, television stations should take the advice of last year's Gore Commission and provide five minutes of free air-time to candidates each day in the 30 days leading up to the election. If they don't want to do that, government should take away their broadcast licenses.

Next, soft money (indirect and thus hard-to-regulate donations to campaigns) should be capped at the same level as direct contributions. Right now, rich donors can give unlimited sums to parties and watch it trickle back to the candidates they support---virtually nullifying the positive effects of the donation caps that were implemented after Watergate. Lastly, make every candidate fully and completely disclose his donor lists over the Internet.

But to take the influence of money out of politics we also have to take the influence of politics out of money. If individuals and companies know that they aren't going to get paid back in kind for their donations, they aren't going to donate as much. There isn't much difference between outright bribery and a tax cut wedged into a budget bill in the dead of night that benefits one company at the expense of everyone else.


Gore sponsored major campaign finance legislation in 1986 and stands firmly behind the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation that would ban soft-money donations. He also chaired the Gore commission that recommended free television time to candidates. So why do public interest groups rate him so far behind Bradley and McCain on this issue?

For one, Gore has surrounded himself with a crowd of politically incorrect K Street power jockeys led by Campaign Chairman Tony Coelho---a former congressman who was forced to resign in 1989 after questions were raised about the propriety of a junk bond investment involving Michael Milken. Then there's Gore's media consultant, Carter Eskew, a tobacco lobbyist who helped Philip Morris defeat federal anti-tobacco legislation. And don't forget Gore's lobbyist buddies Tom Downey, Peter Knight, and Roy Neel---all of whom have played important roles in the campaign while, according to The New York Times, continuing "to lobby members of the Administration and, in some cases, Mr. Gore himself, on behalf of their corporate clients."

Friends are just friends and you don't need to always agree with them. But the vice president could have defeated the suspicions that inevitably follow from such associations by making campaign-finance reform one of the key issues in his election effort. He hasn't. And if a Gore administration includes people like Coelho, there isn't much reason to think they would do it differently.

Grade: C+


Advocates of campaign-finance reform love Bill Bradley for the company he keeps and for hiring reform advocate Don Berman as his campaign manager. They love him for making the issue---with child poverty and health care---one of the three issues on which he has staked his candidacy. And they love him for the substance of proposals to ban soft money, offer free television time for candidates, and publicly finance campaigns at the federal level.

Like Gore, Bradley does have friends with big money connections. He earned $2.7 million in speaking fees---much of it from special interest groups---in the two years after he retired from the Senate and he's the number-one fund-raiser on Wall Street. But, unlike Gore, Bradley has made campaign-finance reform a centerpiece of his strategy. As Steve Weissman of Public Citizen says, "if this issue isn't a priority, it's going nowhere." True. And Bradley, unlike Gore, has made it a priority.

Grade: A-


Governor Bush has been the most successful fund-raiser in presidential history. He was able to knock out most of his opponents from the get-go despite having worked in government for only four years. He has presently raised over $60 million for his presidential election and as H.L. Mencken famously wrote: "It is hard to get a man to believe something when his livelihood depends on him believing something else."

There is also no doubt that Bush is firmly in the hock of special interests. One of his top donors, Lonnie Bo Pilgrim, owner of a massive Texas chicken-processing plant once handed out $10,000 checks on the floor of the state legislature when a workers' compensation bill was being discussed. Later he gave $125,000 to Governor Bush's campaign and, this year, with personal donation limits of $1000, family members are suddenly appearing to donate the maximum amount to the governor's campaign. Not surprisingly, Mr. Pilgrim has, according to Texas activist groups, been able to avoid stringent regulation of his processing plants. When asked about the election, Pilgrim's spokesman said: "Mr. Pilgrim is of course a strong supporter of Governor Bush."

Bush is however responsible for one slightly good reform: He has been putting all of his fundraising data publicly on his Web site. This is a little bit like pouring cans of Coke on a burning house, but it's better than dumping gasoline---as the governor has been so prone to do.

Grade: D-


Since his involvement in the Keating Five scandal (now referred to as the "Keating Four" scandal by public interest groups who have attached themselves to the senator), Sen. McCain has found religion and led the fight against special interests, pork and government corruption. Everybody knows this; everybody on the right side of the issue loves him for it.

He has introduced three successively weaker (but more politically palatable) versions of his signature Senate legislation co-sponsored with Russ Feingold. In his first bill, he proposed to ban soft money, offer free television time to congressional candidates, and restrict issue ads by non-governmental organizations. In the second bill, he dropped the public financing provision, and in the third he dropped the restrictions on non-governmental organizations. Even though each of those bills was torpedoed by the Republican leadership, they brought the issue to national attention.

McCain may also be the one man who could reduce one of the main recipients of government pork: the military. To stop the endless spending on unnecessary bases, we are going to need a president who has the respect of our armed forces. As McCain says: "We've been buying C-130s for 10 years. We're going to have a C-130 in every school yard in America. There's no need for much of the equipment we are purchasing."

Grade A-

Can he run the government?

final grades

Stephen Pomper and Nicholas Thompson are Editors of The Washington Monthly. Click here to email them

Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2003
The Washington Monthly 733 15th St. NW Suite 1000 Washington DC. 20005.
Comments or questions ... please email Christina Larson by clicking here