WASHINGTON -- Al Gore is betting that his collection of debt reduction, spending increases and modest tax breaks will prove an unbeatable combination against George W. Bush's hefty tax cuts. But both presidential candidates may be promising more than they can deliver -- especially if the current remarkable economy suddenly takes a turn for the worse.
Urging voters to "read my plan," Gore unveiled a 191-page blueprint Wednesday on how he would spend $4.56 trillion in surpluses projected by the Congressional Budget Office over the next decade.
Titled "Prosperity for America's Families," the document seeks to emulate the success of "Putting People First," Bill Clinton's economic manifesto of 1992, which he used to defeat Bush's father.
Gore's proposal spreads surplus money around a gamut of popular programs -- from the environment to education and health care -- and is, according to its introduction, "full of specifics for our opponents to ridicule, attack or belittle."
Bush wasted little time doing just that, saying the plan exposed Gore as a government-loving liberal. "He spends the entire surplus on bigger government," Bush said.
For his part, Gore challenged Bush to release as much detail about his tax and spending programs. Bush's campaign responded with a four-page summary of his program.
In one major way, the two documents are identical -- both earmark more than half of the $4.56 trillion in projected surpluses -- the $2.39 trillion generated by Social Security -- to bolstering the giant retirement program.
Gore would use all of the money to reduce the national debt as a way to put the government on sounder fiscal footing when the baby boomers retire. Bush's proposal would pay down the debt and use an unspecified portion to finance giving workers the option of putting some of their payroll taxes into their own retirement accounts.
So far, the Bush campaign has been vague on just what amounts will be required to finance this changeover, which many private experts warn could be a huge drain on the Social Security system over the next several decades.
Gore has his own proposal to bolster Americans' abysmally low personal savings rates, offering tax-free Retirement Savings Plus accounts with matching government funds to encourage savings by middle and lower-income individuals.
Gore estimates the plan's cost at $200 billion over 10 years, but the Bush campaign says the true price tag is likely to be closer to $720 billion.
Just as Gore has sought to portray Bush's plan for a $1.3 trillion across-the-board tax cut as "risky" for the economy, Republicans tried to brand Gore's plan as "risky" on the spending side.
Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee released a report estimating that Gore's spending proposals, both those in his budget and those he has endorsed on the campaign trail, would eat up as much as $906 billion more than the current projections for $2.2 trillion in non-Social Security surpluses.
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, labeled Gore's plan "a promise grab bag that is bigger than any politician of the modern era of American history has ever proposed."
The Gore campaign rejected the charge and pointed to a $300 billion "surplus reserve fund" that would be used as a cushion in case the current surplus projections prove too optimistic.
However, Gore was able to come up with the money for the fund simply by switching from the less optimistic surplus projections his own administration made this summer ($1.9 trillion) to the more optimistic CBO estimates released in July ($2.2 trillion).
As they always do, economists cautioned against placing too much reliance on 10-year forecasts of government revenues and spending.
For the surpluses to occur as projected, the current expansion, already in a record 10th year, will have to keep powering along without a recession. But the economy is showing signs of slowing and many economists believe growth will be significantly slower next year.
For Gore, the current good economic times are not enough. His economic plan puts forward a list of 10 ambitious economic goals, including boosting Americans' savings and increasing the median family's inflation-adjusted income by one-third over the next 10 years -- from $50,000 to $67,000.
Such a gain could be accomplished if productivity, the key to rising living standards, keeps growing over the next decade at the robust levels seen in the last four year years -- something many economists doubt will occur.
While both candidates are pushing their rival plans as the best prescription to keep the good times rolling, many private economists see both as a potential threat to overheat an economy with unemployment already at a three-decade low.
"We don't need a tax cut and we don't need spending increases right now. The right thing to do is nothing. Leave well enough alone and enjoy the ride," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poors in New York.
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