Where They Stand

By Zachary Roth

By this stage in the campaign, we know that President Bush views Sen. Kerry as a “flip-flopper”, and that Sen. Kerry doesn’t think much of the president’s ability to tell the truth. We even know a decent amount about the candidates’ differences on the major issues of national security and the economy.

It’s a cliché of modern politics that in the end people vote with their gut, not their brains. But in an election as close as this one is shaping up to be, who stands where on a few key issues beyond just national security and the economy might matter a lot. With that thought in mind, here’s a Campaign Desk primer on how President Bush and Sen. Kerry come down on three such issues — education, the environment and Social Security — that the campaign press has all but universally ignored.


The Democrats’ criticisms of Bush for failing to fully fund his own No Child Left Behind Act have received some play, but what about beyond that? Only a handful of stories - perhaps the best being Alan Borsuk’s in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel from February 11 — have looked at the differences between Bush’s and Kerry’s education policies.

President Bush does indeed want to spend $6 billion less than Kerry on the already-existing No Child Left Behind program. But the differences on education policy don’t stop there. The centerpiece of No Child Left is the requirement that states must “test every child in grades 3 through 8 to ensure that students are making progress,” according to the Bush campaign Website. Kerry believes that “we need to consider indicators of school performance other than just test scores” — for instance, “graduation rates, teacher attendance, parental satisfaction, and student attendance.”

The candidates also differ when it comes to what to do about low-performing schools. The president’s policy emphasizes choice, providing an estimated $200 million for charter schools, in order to “free children trapped in persistently failing schools.” Kerry, by contrast, wants to shift resources to help improve the worst schools. He offers a $10,000 tax deduction for teachers who ply their trade in low-performing schools. In addition, Bush’s stresses the importance of early learning, especially in reading and math. Kerry has nothing to say about this on his website, but he does want increase funding for after-school programs (Bush’s 2005 budget proposal would freeze funding for such programs).

The Environment and Energy Policy

This is another issue where the news media has been slow to educate the public on the candidates’ key policy differences.

An excellent piece by Danny Hakim in Friday’s New York Times lays out Bush and Kerry’s dramatically different positions on improving fuel economy for cars and trucks — Kerry wants to roughly double average fuel economy standards, in order to cut oil imports and curb global warming. President Bush believes such an approach would cost jobs and compromise safety.

But broader accounts of the candidates’ environmental positions have been rare. Since Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination, we could find only one major news article, which appeared yesterday in the Christian Science Monitor, comparing his environmental positions to the president’s. This despite the clear contrasts the issue offers in a host of areas:

The president’s energy plan favors more energy production, and relies heavily on traditional sources of power like coal, oil, and gas, including the controversial drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Senator Kerry, instead, touts increasing the use of renewable energy sources like wind, solar, hydro-eelctric, and he led the Senate fight against drilling in the Refuge.

On global warming, President Bush opposes mandatory efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions, while Kerry, according to his website, “will re-engage in the development of an international climate change strategy.”

On clean air, President Bush’s “Clear Skies” legislation gives industry more flexibility than would Kerry in how to meet mandatory reduction levels. Environmentalists charge that the plan would actually allow more pollution than would be permitted by simply enforcing the existing Clean Air Act. Senator Kerry has pledged to reverse Clear Skies.

And on forest policy, the president’s “Healthy Forests” initiative gives the timber industry greater access to national forests, which Bush contends will reduce the threat of forest fires. Senator Kerry would put more areas off-limits to logging.

Social Security

When Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan declared last month that cuts in Social Security would eventually be needed to balance the budget, most reporters took the opportunity to give us a response from the candidates: Kerry reiterated his promise not to balance the budget by way of cutting promised Social Security benefits. President Bush, meanwhile, says he will guarantee current benefits only for those at or near retirement age, but he has not ruled out reduced outlays for those becoming eligible for Social Security payments a few years down the road — a position that Greenspan seemed to endorse in his comments.

But the candidates’ differences on Social Security go further, and, alas, we couldn’t find a single article from a major paper examining those differences.

In general, President Bush is more willing to consider making changes to Social Security, both to reduce its cost and to increase its flexibility. Senator Kerry, on the other hand, wants to preserve the program in its current state.

In 2000, President Bush made his support for partial privatization of social security a centerpiece of his campaign. The idea hasn’t had nearly as high a profile this time around, but the president still supports it, while Kerry has ruled out any sort of privatization.

Similarly, Kerry opposes raising the retirement age to 67. Bush won’t rule out such a change.

And Kerry is against means-testing, a proposal designed to cut costs by limiting benefits for more affluent retirees. Again, President Bush hasn’t ruled the idea out.

This bare-bones rundown is far from being comprehensive on any of these issues. But even this modest level of policy detail has been largely absent from the campaign coverage to date, while the candidates’ charges and counter-charges have never lacked for attention.

In one way, the media’s relative indifference to these issues is understandable: The candidates themselves haven’t put them at the center of the debate (that territory has been reserved for the issues of national security and the economy). But it’s also the news media’s role to push the candidates to talk about more than just two issues.

There’s still time.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.