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A Times Editorial

Gore for president

Superior depth, experience and policy priorities make the vice president the best choice to carry forward the achievements of the past eight years.

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000

Al Gore and George W. Bush are the products of a deeply flawed presidential selection process. We believe Vice President Gore is the clearly superior candidate; Bush cannot begin to match Gore's depth and experience, and some of the Texas governor's policy priorities would threaten the significant economic and social gains of the past eight years. However, we sympathize with those who are dissatisfied with a system in which special-interest money and party machines effectively limit voters' options.

Gore used his institutional advantages to defeat former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination. Bush raised record amounts of money and locked up major endorsements early enough to run several credible Republican candidates out of the race before the first primary vote was cast. He relied on those same advantages to wear down the insurgent campaign of his only serious challenger, Arizona Sen. John McCain. The defeats of Bradley and McCain and the marginalization of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader have had the effect of constricting the national conversation during the fall campaign.

That being said, Gore is, in many respects, one of the most highly qualified candidates to seek the presidency in modern times. He has played a more substantive role in administration policy than any previous vice president, and his intelligence and diligence are unquestioned. In the Clinton administration and during his years in the Senate, Gore developed an acknowledged expertise on a range of crucial issues, from arms control to energy policy to the environment. By contrast, Bush, for all his charm, has a skimpy resume and an incurious mind. On any subject other than education, Bush rarely sounds capable of straying beyond platitudes and sound bites. After months of campaigning, he has yet to overcome doubts that he is prepared to lead the country in times of crisis.

At the same time, Gore, despite his unquestioned competence, has not silenced questions about his character. Although Gore does not deserve to be tarred by the sordid scandal surrounding President Clinton's impeachment, he was hip-deep in the more serious misbehavior involving Clinton-Gore campaign fundraising abuses. Beyond that, Gore's shifting personas raise concerns about his core values. No other recent presidential candidate has seemed so unsure about who he is and what he stands for. And without a strong sense of self, a president has difficulty providing strong direction for the country.

A stronger candidate than Bush might have done a better job of exploiting those concerns about Gore. However, Bush pointedly opposes the campaign finance reforms that could begin to clean up Washington fundraising abuses. Bush also advocates tax and spending policies that would undercut the fiscal discipline that led the country from the record deficits of the Reagan-Bush years to today's record surpluses. While both Bush and Gore base their budget projections on rosy assumptions that the current Congress already is demolishing, Bush's proposed $1.3-trillion tax cut is especially irresponsible. And most economists say Bush's inadequately funded plan to partially privatize Social Security would hasten the program's insolvency.

Bush also has created his own set of personal issues. He sometimes has sounded too cavalier discussing serious subjects such as the death penalty, and his policy statements on complex issues such as Social Security and Medicare often are either unintentionally incoherent or purposely deceptive.

On most subjects, the differences between Bush and Gore are matters of degree. In general, the center-right Bush is not the ideologue the Gore campaign portrays, and the center-left Gore is not the big-government liberal the Bush campaign accuses him of being. Bush has publicly distanced himself from Republican leaders of Congress on issues such as the earned-income tax credit and immigration policy. Gore was a leader of the "New Democrat" movement that steered his party toward welfare reform and balanced budgets.

However, there are two major issues on which the candidates' views are strikingly different: abortion and the environment.

Gore and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, straightforwardly defend a woman's right to an abortion within the parameters laid down in the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision. Although Bush and running mate Dick Cheney have tried to equivocate their views on the future of Roe and the abortion drug RU-486, the differences between the campaigns are obvious.

The candidates' differences on the environment are equally stark, and they should be of particular concern to Floridians. While some of Gore's recent compromises have disappointed environmentalists, the vice president's record over the years is solid. Gore has been a consistent and knowledgeable advocate for reducing air and water pollution, developing alternate sources of energy and protecting pristine lands. By contrast, Texas' indefensible environmental record under Bush is not a figment of the Gore campaign's imagination. In this campaign, Bush has advocated new oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- raising concerns about the future of the moratorium on similar exploration off Florida's Gulf Coast. Bush has said he would maintain the moratorium, but many Republican leaders in Congress are ready to start drilling. Could Floridians trust a President Bush to protect our shoreline in the face of pressure from his own party?

The campaigns' differing views on abortion and the environment illustrate the larger institutional stakes of this election. Presidents are more than a collection of issue positions. They also play a crucial role as a check and balance on the powers of Congress and the Supreme Court.

The next president is likely to make at least a couple of Supreme Court appointments. Bush has said that his two favorite justices are the court's most hard-edged ideologues: Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. How might a President Bush's appointments alter the court's balance on abortion? On equal rights? On civil liberties?

The next president also must build a working relationship with Congress, which Gore, as a former Congressman knows intimately. Bush has rightly criticized the excess partisanship in Washington -- but he never holds the Republican-led Congress accountable for its share of the blame. Many of President Clinton's greatest successes have been defensive. His veto pen and bully pulpit turned back many of the worst excesses of the Gingrich revolution. The Republicans are almost certain to retain control of the Senate and are likely to retain control of the House. Would a President Bush be an adequate check on Congress on environmental policy? On tax and spending issues? On foreign policy?

Of course, Bush and Gore are not the only candidates on the presidential ballot. Floridians have several other options, including Nader, Libertarian Harry Browne, the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan and the Natural Law Party's John Hagelin. The Times editorial board gave due consideration to each candidate on the ballot in the course of arriving at a presidential recommendation. Nader in particular is an appealing candidate in several respects, not least of which is his sincere and informed support for campaign finance reform.

One mark of how distorted the presidential selection process has become is that Nader, whose positive contributions to American society compare favorably to Gore's and Bush's, is treated by many as a fringe candidate or a nuisance. We took his candidacy seriously. In the end, we determined that his doctrinaire positions on some important issues, including his strident opposition to free trade, make Nader an unacceptable choice. However, voters dissatisfied with both of the major party candidates should not worry that they are wasting their votes if they choose to support another candidate, who more closely represents their views. The only wasted vote is the vote that is not cast.

The Times recommends Vice President Al Gore for president, because we feel he is the best choice to carry forward the historic economic and social progress of the past eight years. That progress, like the right to vote, should never be taken for granted.

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