Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2004 / 30 Tishrei, 5765

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

Kerry as Mr. Popular? | Who "won" on Wednesday night? That's easy. The Yankees won.

As for the presidential debate, the post-game pundits were not so sure. And "who won" doesn't matter much. The "issue of likeability" will be what most Americans look at from now on, according to conservative commentator David Brooks. That should help George Bush. Liberal Mark Shields conceded Kerry's shortfall in the personality department. "If you had two tickets to a Cardinals-Astros game, would you call him? Probably not."

There was no shutout, to be sure, but the debate's winner was clearly John Kerry. That assumes you heard what the two men actually said on tax-and-spending policies, immigration and other domestic issues. Kerry made a few brave stabs at honesty on difficult issues, something the viewers must have found refreshing.

The candidates discussed the fiscal picture, which is not a pretty sight. Bush is correct that the stock-market bubble bust and 9-11 threw the economy for a loop, and such setbacks were not his fault. But these economic drags did not justify the kind of tax-slashing that has caused deficits to explode. Worse, these ruinous deficits are nicely timed to collide with the baby boomers' retirement, an event that will unleash major new economic stress.

Most of the Bush tax cuts are going to the rich few, and the excuse for this imbalance is that they will "stimulate" a slow economy. The cuts give more money to the sort of people who invest in American business. Of course, he could have also stimulated the economy by giving more money to more ordinary folk, who would have immediately taken the cash to the mall. Or, he could have simply sent more federal aid to the states. has rated state aid as the best federal stimulus of all.

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Kerry said he would pay for his health-care proposal by raising taxes on people making $200,000 or more. This will not free up enough money to feed his ambitious program, but at least it's a recognition that government should raise revenues before spending them. Such old-fashioned budgeting concepts hardly seem to enter Bush's mind.

Kerry accused the president of breaking the pay-as-you-go rules of the '90s. Though imperfectly honored, the rules discouraged Congress from passing new programs without first finding new revenues to pay for them.

"Pay-go," Bush lamely responded, "means you pay, and he (Kerry) goes ahead and spends." This was a brave statement coming from a president who has presided over his own orgy of spending. But he makes a point: Under the Bush policy, you don't pay — your grandchildren do.

The debate moderator, CBS's Bob Schieffer, noted that he'd gotten more mail on the immigration mess than any other topic. And he asked the candidates what they would do about it. Neither jumped on the subject with any relish. Both seemed to assume — incorrectly — that backing immigration control would automatically antagonize Latino voters.

Bush avoided the reality of the problem, altogether. He spoke of plans to put more surveillance gizmos along the border with Mexico. But he made no mention of the existing U.S. laws that penalize employers for hiring illegal aliens. Or that enforcement of these laws has virtually collapsed on his watch. Bush will do nothing to deprive American business of cheap labor.

Everyone knows that the real action in immigration control is in the workplace, not on the border. And, wonder of wonders, Kerry actually said: "We need to crack down on illegal hiring. It's against the law to be hiring people illegally." Hallelujah.

On health care, Bush pushed his health savings accounts, which do have the virtue of giving patients an incentive to watch what they spend. But Kerry hit a home run when he slammed the president for refusing to do anything meaningful about high prescription drug prices. Kerry said he would bargain on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries for better drug prices. And he would let Americans import drugs from Canada.

The drug makers wouldn't like the Kerry plan, but it would sure bring them to the table to discuss a fairer deal for Americans. Talk about incentives.

My wager is that most viewers would not share their Cardinals-Astros tickets with either candidate. But when it comes to domestic issues, Kerry will win the popularity contest.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.