“I hear this Republican message that we’re rich as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’m paying taxes at a lower rate than my secretary … and frankly I think that’s crazy.” — Warren Buffett

I watched the two candidates on Larry King and, I’ll be honest: Governor Bush looked relaxed and seemed to be having a good time. This is appealing. The Vice President, by contrast, looked to me as if he might prefer to be somewhere else.

That’s by no means always the case. The Vice President seemed to be having a ball on David Letterman — he was very funny and relaxed. Often, his warmth and humor come through just fine. But sometimes they don’t. In case tonight Governor Bush should win the popularity contest part of it, as he may, there are a couple of things worth noting.

First, I suspect Bush does have more fun with this than the Vice President, because, heck, it must be kind of a kick. If he wins, he gets to be President! How cool is that? And if he loses, he’s said it won’t much bother him, and I believe it (truthfully, it can be a lot of work being President) — he’ll get to enjoy his ranch. So, sure, he’d like to win. But is it that big a deal to him? I don’t think so. Which is why he can often just be himself, be relaxed, let the chips fall where they may. For the Vice President, by contrast, it is a very big deal. Partly, no doubt, that’s because he has been working toward this much of his life; partly it’s because his personality is just more intense; but largely, I expect, it’s because he believes, as I do, that it really matters a great deal who is entrusted with the Presidency, and what policies that person is committed to pursue.

So that’s the second thing to say: we make a mistake if we turn this into a contest of personalities. The fact is, both men are charming in private. And, as the President frequently notes in commenting on the race, both candidates are good, bright, decent people who love their families and love their country. But they have huge policy differences, huge philosophical differences. And it’s those different visions we should be choosing between even more than trying to divine which man we think would better command the respect of his counterparts at the G7 economic summit, or which one we’d rather watch on TV.

There are a lot of specifics. The Republicans took pride in killing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that most of the other nations of the world have ratified; the Democrats wanted to pass it. The Republicans opposed hiking the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15; the Democrats fought to get it through. The Republicans oppose a woman’s right to choose; the Democrats support it. The Republicans opposed the Brady bill and closing the gun show loophole; the Democrats advocate these things. The Republicans appointed not one openly gay or lesbian American in their last two administrations; the Democrats, with 170, have drawn upon the talents of all Americans. The Republicans do their best to protect the tobacco industry (choosing, among other things, not to cite for contempt the seven CEOs who swore they thought nicotine was not addictive); the Democrats have been the tobacco industry’s worst nightmare. And on and on.

Not to mention the stark difference in the kind of Supreme Court we will have depending on who wins. (Yes, sometimes Justices turn out to be a surprise. But generally, they do not.)

I know quite a few of you favor the Republican side of these issues. I’m not asking everyone to agree with me. What I’m asking is that people make their choice based on substance. Both men can be trusted to try to do more or less what they say they will do. And they say they will do very different things.

So the question isn’t whether someone intentionally put something subliminal in a TV ad or whether the Governor can pronounce it . . . or whether the VP did anything wrong at that Buddhist temple (it turns out, if you read Jeffrey Toobin’s detailed recent account in the New Yorker, he did not). Both men are bright and honest and love their country. (Gore never said he invented the Internet, so isn’t it Bush who’s the truth-bender, if anyone is, for suggesting that he did? Gore was clearly joking when he told a labor group that the “union label” song was his lullaby, so isn’t it Bush who’s the truth-bender, if anyone is, for suggesting otherwise? Gore never did say he discovered Love Canal, and the high school kids whom he was addressing have been appalled and outraged to see how the truth could be completely misreported by the press and then, even once corrected, perpetuated by the Republicans. And, yes, Gore did claim to have been the model for a character in Love Story. But the author, Erich Segal, has said that’s true. Character assassination is a really rotten, dishonest thing, and both sides should refrain from it.)

As you watch the debates, I hope you’ll bear in mind one overwhelming difference that sets the stage for much of the rest. At the heart of Governor Bush’s economic plan — the plan you and I and the rest of the world hang our hopes on for continued prosperity — is a huge tax cut for high-income people like me (and even more huge for high-income people like Bush, Cheney, Forbes, the Forbes 400, Pat Robertson and the rest). It is a tax cut that would add stimulus to the economy exactly when you don’t want to add stimulus. But more than that, it is a tax cut that even conservative Republican John McCain has said is far too heavily weighted to the rich.

I would love to see my taxes slashed. I would! But when I look at all the things that need doing in the world — improving health care for kids and seniors, improving education, paying down the national debt to give us a cushion when times are not so good, I just don’t see a big tax cut for me, let alone Dick Cheney or Steve Forbes, as a top priority.

(The R’s say government should get out of all these social programs and let private charity do it. Did you see what Governor Bush’s chosen running mate, an exemplary Republican, has given to charity? It is revealing. Here’s a clip from Lycos News: “Dick Cheney defended his charitable giving Tuesday, terming it ‘appropriate’ that he has donated 1 percent of his income over the past decade. The amount is less than half of the national average. Cheney and his wife, Lynne, donated $209,832 out of an adjusted gross income of $20.9 million from 1990 through 1999.”)

So, yes, I’d love an extra few tens of thousands of dollars each year — I’m a good guy, why not? But how about preserving or even expanding our pathetically small foreign aid budget, which is a tiny investment in world peace and prosperity? (The average person thinks a huge portion of his taxes goes to foreign aid. It’s barely 1%.)

And what about spending a little to confront our environmental challenges? The North Pole melted this summer! The ozone layer is thinning! These things may not matter. But what if, perchance, the scientists are right and they do? Is it really a gamble we want to take? One wonders whether the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, didn’t take a somewhat similar position.

A big tax cut for the wealthy can’t be a top priority.

That’s why I was struck by Buffett’s quote. Warren Buffett is not an unwise or imprudent man. Nor is he a man who despises free markets or eschews wealth. But he recently said he considers himself “very undertaxed.” As I quoted him up top: “I hear this Republican message that we’re rich as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’m paying taxes at a lower rate than my secretary … and frankly I think that’s crazy.”

At the heart of the debate tonight and in this election is the large portion of the hoped-for surplus that Governor Bush has committed to lowering taxes on the wealthy. This drives everything else, because by making this choice, he can’t possibly have as much money to spend on education or health care or the environment or defense or paying down the debt.

And what does he plan to do if we should ever have a recession? The budget surplus would dry up — less tax revenue, more food stamps — and could well turn back into a deficit. Would he cut taxes further, increasing the deficit and scaring the bond market, to stimulate the lagging economy? Would he cut back on education and health care to make up the deficit? Would he raise taxes — in the middle of a recession — to try to balance the budget? I’m sure we would survive; but why back ourselves into this unnecessary corner? Are we that sure we’ll never again have a recession?

When you’re with your friends watching the debates tonight, I hope you will encourage them to focus not on who’s a more skillful debater (who cares?), or who gets in the funniest zinger (you know that’s what will dominate the TV coverage — and our memories), let alone who’s more telegenic . . . but, rather, whose positions are most likely to be good for you and your kids and your country and your planet. And which guy is most likely to have the vision required to grasp looming problems and craft the best solutions in what has become an ever more highly complex world.

One of you suggested a brilliant bumper sticker I mentioned once before that captures it all very well. AL GORE: DESIGNATED DRIVER. He might or might not be the most fun guy at the party (he is more fun than you think); but who do you want driving home from the party, with your kids in the car?

Tomorrow: Adventures in IPO Land

 

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