What Gore and Bush Should Really Debate

With the debate-debate portion of the presidential campaign concluded -- George W. Bush retreated faster than a Texas tornado -- the contest is heading toward three conventional face-offs sponsored by the corporate-funded Commission on Presidential Debates.

Already melodramatic pundits are predicting these sessions will be Bush's best, if not only, chance to regain the edge he once held over Vice President Al Gore. It seems that the $100 million or so in campaign money he has raised is not quite enough to buy a presidential election; you also need to score well in the verbal shootouts.

But, too often, presidential debates become just another opportunity for candidates to echo the lines they have honed during two years of stump speeches. ("Glad you asked. My twenty-seven-point plan on that subject covers this....")

The Commission has not invited me to join the panel of questioners. Still, I've decided to draft a list of queries that might -- and I emphasize might -- force Gore and Bush out of their rhetorical boxes. Gore won the imaginary coin toss -- he's on a lucky streak these days -- so let's start with him.

*In your best-selling book, Earth in the Balance, you wrote, "we must take bold and unequivocal action: we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." But you also noted, "I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously." Can you tell us three instances when you acted in such a fashion?

* During your acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, you vowed to fight the "powerful interests" on behalf of "the people." Why are so many of your intimates and campaign advisers employed as lobbyists and consultants for powerful corporate interests, including HMOs, the telecom industry, and Big Tobacco?

* Do you have any close friends -- and by that, I mean people with whom you socialize regularly -- who make less than $100,000 a year? If so, who are they?

* What accounts for the fact that nearly 20 percent of America's children live in poverty? Why has that figure barely changed in the past eight years?

* You have accepted $67 million in public financing for your presidential campaign. As you know, the theory behind the law that provides for this funding is that presidential candidates should receive taxpayer money during the general election so they do not have to engage in the never-pretty practice of fundraising. But the advent of so-called soft money has led to a loophole that permits presidential candidates, such as yourself and Governor Bush, to chase after top-dollar donations from corporations, millionaires and unions, even as they pocket public money. Before you launch into a speech about your position on campaign finance reform, please answer this question: Haven't both you and Governor Bush made an absolute mockery of the campaign finance system?

* Sticking with the subject of money-and-politics, you have bemoaned the current system. As someone who served sixteen years in the House and the Senate before becoming Vice President, you are in a position to convince the public of the corrosive influence of campaign contributions and the pressing need for reform. In all that time in government, did you ever witness an instance when political donations affected the actions of government officials within your own party? If so, name names.

* You are a supporter of the War on Drugs. But you also say that the Beatles -- who were quite notorious in their use of drugs -- are your favorite musical act. Is it hypocritical of you to celebrate music that was, in part, a product of the 1960s drug culture and then call for zero-tolerance regarding drug use? You even opposed medicinal marijuana after first saying you were not against it. Moreover, do you believe the music of the Beatles would have been better had John, Paul, George and Ringo not engaged in recreational drug use?

* Why is it that workers receive paid family leave and guaranteed paid vacation in Western European nations, but not in the United States?

* In retaliation for terrorist attacks on two US embassies in Africa, President Clinton ordered the bombing of terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, which, he said, was engaged in the production of chemical weapons. It turned out that there was no solid proof this facility was manufacturing such weapons. Didn't the President lie to the public? Why shouldn't the attack on the Sudan plant be viewed as an unconstitutional and excessive use of presidential power?

Now let's turn to Governor Bush.

* Earlier in the campaign, you were cagey in addressing questions about your own use of drugs. Let's cut to the chase: Have you ever done anything illegal? For example, have you ever sold drugs?

* You call for banning most abortions. Put another way, you favor compelling women to give birth to children they would rather not have. To demonstrate that there are homes for such children -- and to lead by example -- why have you not adopted a child?

* You have repeatedly said that you are sure that every convict who has been executed in Texas during your tenure as governor was guilty as charged. Are you confident enough to promise that you will resign from public life if one of those people is ever proven innocent?

* Regarding the death penalty, The Los Angeles Times, after obtaining access to your daily schedules, published an article in August that noted you often spent as little as fifteen minutes reviewing capital punishment cases before authorizing an execution. Can such life-and-death matters can be evaluated fairly in such a short period of time?

* During the Republican convention, your nephew, George P. Bush, said that since the death of Cesar Chavez, the legendary Latino organizer, the Latino community has needed a new leader and "that person is my uncle." Did he go too far? Do you believe Latinos see you as the heir to Cesar Chavez?

* While we are on the subject of Latino politics, your political opponents assert that you have done nothing for the colonias, the shantytowns in Texas near the Mexican border, where people live in Third World conditions, with open sewers and no running water. Why have you not visited and redressed these pockets of poverty in your own state?

* You have dismissed critics who charge your success in life is attributable to your name and family connections. With your mediocre prep school grades, do you believe that you would have been accepted at Yale University had your father not been a prominent graduate of the school? Aren't such legacy admissions a form of affirmative action? And will you share with us your thoughts on whether America is a meritocracy?

* You set a world record in terms of political fundraising. Do you expect voters to believe that no contributor to your presidential or gubernatorial campaigns has ever -- not even once -- sought a political favor from you?

* Several times during this presidential campaign, when you slipped, you retooled your campaign and appropriated the theme of your foe. After John McCain won in New Hampshire with a pro-reform message, you adopted the slogan "a reformer with results." After Al Gore gained traction in the polls with his populist rhetoric, you unveiled your "real plans for real people." Can you campaign without being a copycat?

* In your acceptance speech at the Republican Party, you noted that "greatness is found when American character and American courage overcome American challenges." You praised "the eloquence of American action" and proclaimed, "We heard it in the civil rights movement, when brave men and women did not say 'we shall cope,' or 'we shall see.' They said, 'we shall overcome.'" Where were you during the civil rights struggle? Why did you not join these "brave men and women" and participate in this movement?

Well, we're about out of time. But before we let the two candidates pontificate during their blah-blah-blah closing remarks, there's one more question that's addressed to both:

* One of the more unusual moments of this presidential campaign occurred this spring when John McCain, after he had lost the Republican primary contest, gave a speech and apologized for having lied when he said he believed that the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina was an issue that should be left to South Carolinians. Actually, he admitted, he had concluded it was wrong to display that flag, but he had been afraid to speak honestly out of fear it would cost him votes. Has there ever been a time in your years as a politiciain when you were not fully honest in public?

Who wants to go first?

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