Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush tossed out lots of numbers about tax and budget policy in their debate Tuesday night. But often their math was faulty or misleading, even when rooted in the deep philosophical divide between the candidates.
If anything, the dueling claims illuminated that divide -- a split where one candidate's tax cuts are viewed as spending by the other, or where a broad-based tax cut plan by one accounting is considered a sop to the rich by his rival.
Gore repeatedly attacked Bush's tax plan, saying that the top 1 percent of taxpayers would get more -- $665 billion -- than what Bush would devote to spending programs such as health care and education.
Bush dismissed that point as "fuzzy math." But while it is somewhat misleading, it's in the ballpark. Gore inflated the size of the Bush tax cut going to the very rich; for instance, he included the extra interest costs the Bush plan would incur by implementing a tax cut instead of paying down the national debt. Gore also included Bush's plan for estate tax relief, which disproportionally helps the rich.
Still, setting aside those two issues, it is clear that about 30 percent of Bush's tax cut -- or $400 billion over 10 years -- would go to the wealthiest 1 percent. That should not be surprising, because the top 1 percent already pay 30 percent of federal income taxes, and Bush has repeatedly said that his plan should benefit not only the middle class but also the wealthy who, he says, create the jobs. Depending on how one does the math, Bush proposes $450 billion to $550 billion in new spending.
Tax cuts were not the only issue on which the two candidates jousted sharply over the facts in a series of unusually substantive exchanges over education, Social Security and other issues.
Bush and Gore had one of their sharpest exchanges on providing prescription drug coverage to seniors, one of the biggest issues on the campaign trail. Gore complained that Bush would give tax relief to the wealthy in the "first year," but would force someone making at least $25,000 to wait four years for a drug benefit.
Actually, Bush tax plan phases in slowly over six years. However, Gore accurately described the governor's drug plan -- even as Bush complained about the vice president's "old-style Washington politics."
For the short-term, Bush has proposed an "Immediate Helping Hand" program to provide prescription drug coverage for poor seniors, but it would not reach elderly earning more than $14,600 and it would not provide any relief until after a retiree had spent $6,000 out of pocket.
Regarding the federal budget, Bush insisted he devotes one-half of projected federal budget surpluses over the next decade to Social Security, one-quarter to "important priorities" and one-quarter to give back to the people in tax cuts. But he comes up with those figures by ignoring the interest costs that accrue from opting for tax cuts or new spending instead of paying off the national debt.
That's kind of like figuring out your car payments and not counting the interest costs on your loan. Bush actually would devote one in three dollars of the surplus on tax cuts.
Gore's math on his plans -- every dollar of spending is matched a dollar in tax cuts, while double that goes to debt reduction -- was more accurate, if you buy his budget numbers. But others, such as the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, have calculated that Gore devotes five dollars on spending for every dollar in tax cuts.
Moreover, both candidates would eat up much of a surplus that hasn't materialized yet.
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