The Hidden Presidential Campaign Issues
Bush and Gore are eager to promote ideas with wide appeal, but where do they stand on more controversial questions.
I’m for mom, apple pie, and science. Al Gore and George W. Bush both recognize that American voters like science. It strengthens the economy, keeps our military one step ahead of everyone else, gives us an endless stream of cool electronic gewgaws, and provides us with healthier and longer lives. Even the neoluddites who oppose nuclear power, biotech foods, and the internal combustion engine want the government to support scientific research to help develop solar energy, organic farming, and hydrogen-fueled cars. It’s a win-win issue.
Not surprisingly, the candidates feature their support for science prominently on their web sites. Bush wants to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)–though he doesn’t say over what period. Gore’s also on board for doubling the NIH budget over 10 years, and he’ll throw in 20 centers of excellence in biomedical computing at universities. The candidates also mention increasing federal research support in other areas, but they do not make any specific promises. As Charles Wessner of the National Research Council’s Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy points out, they do not consider whether the balance between biomedical and all other research is right. Even leaders in the biomedical sciences have made it clear that their progress depends on complementary progress in chemistry and physics as well as breakthroughs in fields such as computing, nanotechnology, and materials science.
Education. Both candidates daringly declare that they favor higher standards in school, particularly in science and math, but they are careful to add that is to be achieved primarily through the efforts of state and local leaders. Bush wants to establish a $1-billion math and science partnership for states, colleges, and universities to strengthen K-12 math and science education and a $3-billion education technology fund to ensure that technology boosts achievement. He would expand federal loan forgiveness from $5,000 to $17,500 for math and science majors who teach in high-need schools for five years. Gore would require that all new middle- and high-school teachers pass a test before being allowed to teach. He would also provide federal money to help raise teacher pay, to hire 100,000 new teachers, and to make preschool available to all.
Gore’s education policy emphasizes accountability and standards. He wants all states to administer the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and to use the results to reward or sanction states. He also encourages states to have rigorous exit requirements for high school. In addition, he would require the states to test the teaching skills and subject knowledge of all new middle school and high school teachers before they begin teaching. Gore would invest $170 billion over ten years in the nation’s public schools.
Because education is primarily a local responsibility, a president is not in an ideal position to stimulate change. The federal financial contribution will always be a tiny percentage of total school spending, and key policy decisions are made at the state or local level. In their search for a credible federal role, both candidates have found that a mandate for more testing is an appealingly simple solution. But does anyone believe that lack of testing is the problem with U.S. schools? Indeed, a recent National Research Council report (High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation) points out that the misuse of tests can actually be detrimental to learning. When the stakes are too high and the tests too regimented, the result can be a strait-jacketed curriculum geared strictly to test preparation. This could be a particular problem if the NAEP is used for high-stakes decisions for individual students and schools. The purpose of the NAEP is to gain a broad picture over time of student achievement. Because the results do not have a direct effect on individual schools or students, there is no incentive to teach to the test. If NAEP results had direct consequences for schools, teachers would begin teaching to the test, and the results would be skewed in ways that would limit the value of NAEP for its primary purpose. In the first televised debate between Bush and Gore, they had a heated discussion of who had the most comprehensive plan for testing. That’s not the debate we need, nor one that either candidate should necessarily want to win.
Defense. Detailed discussions of defense policy have been conspicuously absent from this year’s campaign. The end of the Cold War has made the military threat to the United States much more remote. The big money, which used to be found in defense, is now linked to entitlements and health care. Both candidates recognize that this is no time to talk about ambitious defense initiatives.
Both candidates speak in favor of developing next generation weapons. Bush talks of adding $20 billion to the defense R&D budget over the next five years and skipping a generation of technology. Gore counters that he does not favor skipping a generation. The problem is that it’s impossible to know what either one means by skipping a generation. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, points out that what is missing in these plans is a detailed discussion of the strategic context that should guide technology development: In other words, what purpose are the new weapons supposed to serve? For example, the development of advanced fighter jets sounds good but the proposed jets have relatively short range. This means that they will be of no use when we do not have access to adequate airfields close to the action. We cannot know how useful these planes will be unless we know whether we expect to be using them in places where we have guaranteed access to airfields. Similar considerations should be part of the discussion of all new technology plans, but Krepinevich explains that because defense is not a front-page issue in this election, the candidates are not being forced to confront these questions.
In the controversial area of a U.S. missile defense system, Gore would continue Clinton’s cautious strategy of waiting until we are confident that we have reliable technology and then building a limited ground-based system that he argues would not violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia. Bush recommends proceeding with a more extensive system that includes sea-based and possibly air- and space-based interceptors. He maintains that the United States should not let itself be constrained by the ABM Treaty.
Environment. The candidates have some clear disagreements on environmental policy. Bush opposes the Kyoto Protocol, which would require developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent compared with 1990 levels. He argues that it does not require any actions by the developing countries, where energy use is growing fastest. Gore supports the protocol, because it at least calls for some specific action to reduce greenhouse emissions. He believes that cooperative efforts with developing countries will succeed in gaining their involvement in emissions reduction.
Gore and Bush are both trying to dissociate themselves from positions they held in the past in favor of higher energy prices. Early in the Clinton administration, Gore pushed for a tax on fossil fuels to encourage conservation and the development of alternative energy sources. In the 1980s Bush favored higher prices because they would benefit oil producing states and encourage domestic production. With oil prices rising sharply in recent months, neither candidate favors any action that would drive prices any higher.
Bush has not articulated an energy policy in any detail, though he has stated his support for tax incentives for ethanol and research to help develop energy-efficient technologies. In the near term he places a heavy emphasis on increasing U.S. production of fossil fuels. Bush opposes new leases for oil and gas drilling off the Florida and California coasts and wants to work with local leaders to determine on a case-by-case basis if drilling should continue on existing leases. Unlike Gore, however, Bush would allow exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because he believes that oil and gas extraction could be done in an environmentally sound way. Gore has a detailed 10-year, $125-billion plan to clean up existing coal-fired electric plants, develop new energy technologies, and provide tax incentives to individuals and businesses who spend money on a variety of alternative energy and energy-saving products.
Bush has yet to articulate a comprehensive transportation plan. Gore recommends an $25-billion, 10-year government effort to develop mass transit efforts such as high-speed rail, light rail, and cleaner and safer buses.
A major theme of the Bush campaign is that he will pay much more attention to the views of local communities and leaders in advancing environmental protection. For example, he would designate 50 percent of the Land and Water Conservation Fund for use by state and local initiatives. He criticizes the Clinton/Gore administration for taking too many top-down federal actions that did not consider the views of local people affected by the policies.
Both candidates want to encourage the use of brownfields, land that is not being used because it contains potentially harmful residues from past industrial activities. Potential developers worry about their liability under current environmental law. This is particularly a problem in older urban areas, where land is relatively scarce. Both candidates would provide financial assistance to those who want to develop these properties, and Bush would also introduce more flexible cleanup standards.
Technology. Both candidates recognize that technology is important to economic growth, so both want to be seen as allies of progress. Both emphasize that innovation is driven by the private sector, that government should spend more on research that provides a foundation for that innovation, and that free trade is an essential complement. Both candidates support the permanent extension of the research and experimentation tax credit to encourage industry to invest more in research. Gore says he’ll facilitate its use by small businesses, and Bush asks why the additional cost doesn’t show up in his budget calculations. Both candidates would increase the number of H-1B visas for highly skilled foreign workers, but both are also careful to add that this is a short-term solution. They point to their education proposals as the way to train more highly qualified U.S. workers. Bush promises to work for legal reforms to curb lawsuits that he claims often saddle companies with unnecessary costs and would aim to make regulation less burdensome.
Both want to extend the federal moratorium that bars states from collecting sales taxes on out-of-state online vendors, but on more controversial Internet topics they are silent. Neither candidate has taken a stand on whether the regional Bell operating companies or “Baby Bells” should be allowed to offer nationwide broadband service. Likewise, neither has expressed an opinion on whether cable TV companies that offer Internet service should be subject to the same open access rules that apply to telephone companies that provide Internet service.
Health. Differences are apparent in several areas of health policy. Bush supports the continuation of a ban on the use of federal funds for research on stem cells taken from human embryos, but he would not interfere with commercial research in this area. Gore supports the new administration policy of allowing federally funded research on stem cells from human embryos, provided that nonfederal researchers obtain the cells. Of course, this decision has nothing to do with the importance of stem cell research and everything to do with abortion politics. Besides, neither candidate wants to limit this research in the commercial sector, where much of the research will be conducted.
Bush wants to extend health care to the uninsured by subsidizing the purchase of private insurance. Gore would prefer expanding current government programs to reach the uninsured. Both support tax credits for individuals who purchase insurance themselves. Bush wants to expand the medical savings accounts program by allowing all employers to offer them and to let both employers and employees contribute to them. Gore opposes the idea, which he claims would mostly attract healthy people and pull them out the regular insurance market, boosting costs for those who remain. Joshua Wiener of the Urban Institute observes that we should not expect too much from these proposals, because Congress has been debating these and other approaches for years with little practical result. The bottom line is that neither has suggested any policy that would come close to providing insurance for the 43 million uninsured Americans.
Likewise, Wiener points out that neither candidate has much to say about cost containment. Growth in the nation’s health care bill has slowed in the past decade, thanks in part to expansion of managed care plans, which made some quick progress in controlling costs. But now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, these plans find that their costs are rising quickly. The cost of prescription drugs is one reason that total costs are moving up. Long-term care is another problem that has attracted little interest from the candidates. During their respective primaries, each offered some help, including tax benefits for those who care for elderly relatives. Neither approach was very ambitious, and neither candidate has highlighted this issue in the campaign.
Gore has a more aggressive plan for patients rights that would allow them to sue their health plans when they are denied services. Bush supports giving patients limited rights to sue federally governed health plans. Bush would make the cost of long-term care fully deductible and establish a personal tax exemption for home caregivers. Gore favors a $3,000 tax credit for home caregivers but does not support a tax break for the purchase of long-term-care insurance because he wants to see quality improvements in the industry.
Both favor letting the industry take the lead in protecting consumer privacy. They both support the principle that consumers have a right to control the use of their personal information. This is one area where research is not a top priority. Public health experts make the case that a national data base of computerized patient records would be an invaluable research tool for understanding the origin, progress, and spread of disease, and that they can use this data without violating patient privacy. The candidates know their polling data, and the overwhelming majority of Americans want tight privacy protection for their medical data. Privacy should be protected. What we want from policymakers is a way to enable researchers to use medical data for the benefit of all without compromising individual privacy.
Budget. Joshua Wiener raises one issue that casts a shadow over all promises to spend more on science, technology, and health programs such as medical research, teacher training, prescription drug benefits, and advanced military technology. This generosity is made possible by the current rosy scenario for a large federal budget surplus in the coming years. Changes in economic conditions or in government policies affecting taxes, social security, or health care could dramatically alter the government’s fiscal picture. If a shrinking or disappearing budget surplus appears on the horizon, we may find that the new president, whoever it is, takes a somewhat dimmer view of the importance of investments in science, technology, and medicine.