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Democratic Candidates Join in Opposing Bush's Policies

By Sean Findlay
In the final debate before today's first presidential primary, Democratic candidates joined in opposing President Bush's policies, but failed to highlight policy differences among themselves.

The only major differences aired during the 90-minute debate arose from the candidates' positions on a middle class tax cut and reductions in the tax on capital gains. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas distinguished himself through his support of nuclear power plants, in contrast to the other candidates' varying degrees of opposition.

Tsongas, identified in recent polls as the front runner, said he "enjoyed being attacked rather than patted on the head," as he was in previous debates when he was much less popular. He added that his congressional record on conservation, renewables, and the environment could not be challenged. Tsongas said his first priorities are to maximize conservation, increase the use of renewables, and use more natural gas. He feels that of currently available energy sources, nuclear power is preferable to fossil fuels because of the dangers of global warming.

Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas repeated throughout the debate that he has provided specific solutions for a new and different economic course. He labeled this a big election year and stressed his ability to lead and to energize, saying, "I believe that what the people need in a president is someone who has the vision to tell people where we are and where we ought to go." At one point, he sought with little success to redirect the debate by asking "What do we think of the two or three really big, defining issues of this election?" Clinton exhibited leadership in managing to get all the candidates to agree that Bush should bring the United States up to European standards for carbon dioxide emissions and energy efficiency.

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerry strikingly remarked on the role of U.S. science. Kerry told of a Bush administration speech which said, "We want to help you find new projects that will allow you to ... earn a decent living applying your skills in the cause of science and peace." The speech was given by Secretary of State James A. Baker III to nuclear scientists of the former Soviet Union. Kerry said he would give this same speech to American scientists.

Kerry's economic plans were less succinct. When questioned on his proposed middle class tax cut, he admitted it would not provide a "massive stimulus" to the economy, but said the estimated $30 a week extra would make a difference to a family earning only $15,000 a year, and thus would restore economic equity.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin began the debate on the wrong foot and appeared off balance for most of the evening. The first question posed to Harkin asked how he would explain his proposed 50 percent reduction in defense spending to defense plant workers who would lose their jobs. He responded, "I would be delighted to answer, but first I would like to thank the people of New Hampshire, who have been so kind and gracious to me over the last few months." Harkin continued in this vein, then eventually offered a nonspecific program of economic conversion to build ships, bridges, and high speed rail along the Eastern corridor. Harkin later suggested the U.S. could save several billion dollars by replacing all the light bulbs in the country with energy efficient ones, and said he would "embark on a program of developing solar hydrogen ... 25 years down the pike."

Former California Governor Edmund (Jerry) Brown said he would eliminate all current income taxes, including social security, and replace them with a 13 percent income tax. He said this would strip away the loopholes available to the rich and eliminate the annual changes in the tax structure. He added that this "churning of the tax code is a good source of corrupt campaign fund raising; it is a major leak on the economy." Positions such as these make Brown a distinctive candidate but keep him out of the mainstream.

After the debate, Tsongas was asked what set him apart from the other candidates. "The difference between me and the other Democrats is that I don't claim to be Santa Claus," he said. "The middle class tax cut is the easiest thing in the world to support. It has obvious appeal, but it does not create jobs." Other candidates were not available to explain their uniqueness.

Rather than clarifying the choice between the candidates, the debate left the impression that it will have almost no impact on the primary, and that it served only to confirm the Democratic bandwagon of opposition to Bush.