It is easy to believe that politicians always break their promises, that what they say now won't matter after the election. But numerous studies show that in the past 40 years more than two-thirds of the promises made by presidential candidates during a campaign were enacted in some form once they were elected. So we aren't just electing a personality--we're choosing an agenda. And on four critical issues, the differences between Bush and Gore are big. Here they are:
PLAN: Devote more than a third of the projected surplus--$1.6 trillion--to tax cuts, including a broad cut for all income brackets. Double the child tax credit, give a credit to married couples regardless of whether they pay the marriage penalty, and repeal the estate tax.
IMPACT: Nearly everyone gets a tax cut--particularly the wealthiest third of taxpayers. The long-term effect is cloudy: Bush argues that his cuts will encourage the economy to keep growing, but the cuts could lead to inflation, and if things turn sour, ballooning deficits could return. And Congress is currently spending a fifth of the surplus.
THE SUPREME COURT
PLAN: Appoint Justices (there will probably be two or more openings in the next four years) like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas who look to the intent of the Founding Fathers when interpreting the Constitution.
IMPACT: Abortion will probably remain legal, but with more limitations. Vouchers for religious schools could be found constitutional, and the court could allow some prayer in schools. Affirmative action may be struck down or further limited, as could many federal laws that encroach upon state power, such as the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
PLAN: Give uninsured families a $2,000 tax credit to help purchase insurance. Pass a patients' bill of rights with a restricted right to sue HMOs. Turn Medicare into an insurance subsidy, giving seniors money for private insurance and prescription-drug coverage.
IMPACT: A patients' bill with such a limited right to sue keeps lawsuits from driving costs up but leaves patients little recourse if HMOs don't play fair. Privatizing Medicare will help cure its long-term financial troubles, but it risks creating a class system: full coverage for wealthy and low-income seniors, while those in the middle struggle to afford plans with prescription coverage.
PLAN: Use about half the Social Security surplus--roughly $1 trillion--to allow young workers to invest one-sixth of their payroll taxes in private accounts.
IMPACT: Depends on the stock market. The $1 trillion price tag means the program may go bankrupt 10 years earlier; to cover the cost, Bush will have to cut benefits. If the market continues its historical rate of return of 7% a year (or even if it gains a more modest 5% a year), such cuts would be painless because the private-account nest egg for most future beneficiaries would more than equal the benefits they would receive under the current system. But there's no benefit floor to protect losers.