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Presidential Debate Sticks to Facts

By Ronald Brownstein and John M. Broder
Los Angeles Times

It was back to the straight and narrow when the three presidential contenders met for their second debate Thursday night.

After Tuesday evening's wild vice presidential debate _ which was marked by questionable assertions and outright misrepresentations _ the men on the top of the ticket stayed close to the facts Thursday night, just as they did in their first encounter last Sunday.

For the most part, President Bush, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot accurately characterized their own programs and those of their opponents. Some assertions were debatable _ in most cases more for what they left out than what they put in. On that front, Bush was probably the worst offender _ though none of his remarks rose to the level of capital crimes.

For example, Bush took credit for a huge six-year $150 billion transportation bill approved by Congress in 1991; Bush did sign the bill, but only after Congress rejected an administration alternative that would have spent less money.

As he has throughout the campaign, Bush accused Clinton of proposing a $150 billion tax increase. That's only partially true: Clinton's plan does contain $150 billion in new taxes _ but also proposes about $100 billion in offsetting tax cuts for middle-class families and business.

Bush also took credit for a 60 percent decline in drug use among teen-agers. Indeed, last August, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse showed a 64 percent decline in cocaine use among 12- to 17-year-olds. But experts say that's only one measure of the trends in drug use and arguably not the most meaningful: a Senate Judiciary Committee study released earlier this year, for instance, estimated that the number of hard-core cocaine and heroin addicts has increased by 3 million since 1988.

Bush was correct when he said the first negative ad in the campaign had been aired by Clinton _ an attack on Bush's economic record that first appeared in late September. But he was on shakier ground when he swiped at the ``reckless spending Congress''; in fact, the House Committee on Appropriations has calculated that Bush over his term has requested slightly more money in total spending than Congress has actually appropriated.

Bush asserted that during his presidency 43 or 44 countries ``have gone democratic, no longer totalitarian, no longer living under a dictatorship or Communist rule.''

The accuracy of the definition depends on how one defines a democracy. It is true that during the last four years more than 40 countries have held some form of multi-party election for the first time or been liberated from the Soviet empire _ including the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union itself and eight newly free nations of Eastern Europe.

Bush also apparently was counting several Latin American countries moving toward democracy, including El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama, and more than a dozen African nations that have taken the first steps toward political pluralism.

It remains to be seen, however, whether any or all of these nations will emerge as full-fledged democracies _ with vigorous political competition, institutionalized human rights and independent judiciaries.

After an uncharacteristically vague performance in the first debate, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton reverted to the role he often played in the Democratic primaries: ``the answer man'' with a list of programs and statistics for every question.

Clinton's parade of facts mostly marched in a straight line.

Clinton actually understated the case when he said a bipartisan commission said his health care proposals would save the average family $1,200 a year (they estimated the savings at more than $1,300); as Clinton said in the debate, that commission estimated Bush's plan would leave 27 million Americans uninsured by the year 2000. About 35 million Americans now lack health insurance, as Clinton said.

But Clinton may have slightly overstated his case in one of the few jabs aimed at Perot. Clinton said that the billionaire's deficit reduction plan would ``make unemployment bad for four more years.''

His assertion is supported by a number of economic forecasters, who say that, depending on the condition of the economy when the Perot plan is implemented, it could worsen the unemployment picture for a number of years before any benefits would be achieved.

Perot also omitted some relevant facts. When he complained about lobbyists ``running up and down the halls'' of Congress, he didn't mention that as head of Electronic Data Services, his former company, he aggressively sought to influence government policy in Washington, and in states where he bid for contracts, he often employed lobbyists himself.