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Math Challenge in Bush, Gore Debate

October 4, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ They swept into viewers’ homes like brain Novocain _ all those numbers in the first presidential debate.

Al Gore said that for every dollar he’d use for this thing, he’d use so many dollars for that. George W. Bush talked in trillions. Baffling percentages flew between them. There was no telling amid the math mania whether average Americans would be well served or sold down the river.

``I started to glaze over,″ said Tom Norman, a systems analyst in Grand Rapids, Mich. ``When Gore was flinging those numbers all over, it’s like _ take a breath.″

Gore issued a stiff challenge Wednesday to voters confused by the arithmetic.

``They can add up the numbers for themselves,″ he said on CBS’ ``The Early Show.″

But after the statistical slugfest Tuesday night, even the experts were benumbed.

``I couldn’t figure out what he was saying,″ said Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates deficit reduction, after watching Bush try to explain where he gets the money for partial Social Security privatization.

The numerical claims are bound to intensify in the five weeks until the Nov. 7 election and more will be heard on Gore’s favorite device for slamming Bush’s proposed tax cuts _ casting as many of the benefits as possible in terms of how much would be soaked up by the nation’s ``wealthiest 1 percent.″

Bush was mostly on the defensive on the numbers as his Democratic rival attacked his across-the-board tax cuts as well as a prescription drug benefit for the elderly that Gore says is too limited and takes too long to help people.

Figures collided headlong.

Bush said he would spend one quarter of the projected surplus over the next 10 years on tax cuts. Gore insists the tax package is more expensive than that because money that could be used for debt reduction is tied up in the tax plan, making the government’s interest payments higher.

Gore said the Republican governor would give almost one half of the surplus to that ``wealthiest 1 percent.″

Actually, Bush’s tax cuts _ in total _ only consume 29 percent of the surplus, making it a mathematical stretch to say half of the surplus would go just to the rich.

``I paid attention but I couldn’t relate with the numbers,″ said Denny King, a construction worker on his lunch break in front of the White House.

Gore also said the wealthiest 1 percent would get 30 percent of Bush’s tax cuts.

In response, Bush complained about Gore’s ``fuzzy math″ and pointed out, for example, that middle-income and low-income Americans would see big gains from his tax cuts, not just the rich.

The fuzzy reality is that both are roughly right.

Any plan to cut all tax rates is bound to benefit the wealthiest the most in total dollars because they pay the most taxes to begin with. Gore routinely ignores that and Bush skipped an opportunity to say it in the debate.

At the same time, people making less money get a larger tax cut as a proportion of their income. Indeed, Bush’s cuts would take millions of the lowest-income working families off the tax rolls altogether.

``There’s a tax cut for everybody who pays taxes″ under Bush’s plan, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an authority on debates and political rhetoric at the University of Pennsylvania.

She said Gore’s harping on the ``wealthiest 1 percent″ was misleading even though he was technically accurate in using it most of the time.

``Redundancy is what drives retention,″ she said, citing an axiom of public opinion research that people will believe something if it is said often enough.

Redundancy made Susanne Beauregard of Olympia, Wash., tune out before the debate was done. She called her sister and read a bedtime story to her grandson instead. ``I didn’t want to spend an evening listening to it,″ she said.

But Eric Hartfield, a chemist and Democrat who watched the debate with Norman as part of a panel of voters gathered by The Grand Rapids Press, said Gore’s 1 percent mantra was effective, if annoying.

``Gore is so tenacious that it becomes monotonous,″ he said. ``But the more you say it, the more it sticks.″

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