In Restrained Second Debate, Candidates Focus on the Issues : Campaign: Audience calls for contenders to stop ‘trashing’ each other. Bush, Clinton and Perot spell out their sharply differing approaches to solving nation’s problems.
Faced with an impromptu demand from the audience that they stop “trashing” each other and address the issues, the three major presidential candidates Thursday night devoted the second debate of the 1992 campaign to an undramatic but comprehensive explanation of how they would approach the nation’s most pressing problems.
The unexpected call for an end to personal attacks, made by some 200 uncommitted voters assembled here to question the candidates in the nationally televised encounter, made it difficult for President Bush to concentrate on delivering the unrelenting attacks on Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s character that some GOP strategists see as crucial to undermining the Democratic standard-bearer’s credibility.
As a result, Bush, Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot spent most of the 90-minute session spelling out their sharply differing approaches to such issues as jobs, foreign trade, the federal deficit, health care, education, crime, Social Security, race relations and the role of the United States in the post-Cold War world.
In sharp contrast with the raucous and belligerent vice presidential face-off only two nights before in Atlanta, Thursday’s debate in the University of Richmond’s Robins Center was an even-tempered, classroom-like discussion of problems and possible solutions. And perhaps more than any moment in the long campaign, the second debate--while unexciting--offered a clear, first-hand look at how the three candidates would approach the presidency.
Bush insisted, as he has throughout a long career in public life, that the key to almost every problem was less government involvement and more reliance on the private sector. Clinton, armed with an array of specific plans for each problem, called for an active government role in bringing about change. And Perot, focusing chiefly on deficit reduction and job growth, vowed to bring Democrats and Republicans together to hammer out consensus solutions.
The low-key debate produced no clear-cut winner, which may have made it yet another setback for Bush. Still trailing badly in the polls, he has been searching for a way to shake up the political equation and make voters rethink their attitudes before they vote Nov. 3.
The debates have been viewed by most political analysts as the President’s last best hope for achieving that goal.
After the debate, Bush told a cheering crowd of 4,000 who gathered in a Richmond gymnasium: “I have a definite, distinct feeling that despite all those pessimistic reporters I listen to, we are going to win this election. We are right on the issues, and Clinton and Gore are in that ozone hole.”
He went to say: “How sweet the victory will be when we can show the pollsters they’re wrong.” Only one debate remains: next Monday night in East Lansing, Mich.
The generally even tone of the exchanges and the effects of television staging made the event seem more intimate than it was--almost like it was occurring in a small hall in a town early on the campaign trail. The debate took place on the basketball court of a large arena. The candidates perched on four-legged stools in a set transformed into a television studio and were free to stroll close to the crowd to make their points.
Perot made the one bit of news during the evening, announcing that he would serve only one term if elected, and would collect no compensation. Clinton, seemingly relaxed and familiar with the format, moved easily about the stage.
In the days going into the debate, the GOP strategy had continued to focus on assaulting Clinton. On Tuesday, Bush himself made an unscheduled appearance before NBC’s “Today” show cameras to renew his charges. And Thursday night, he did argue once more that the Arkansas governor’s role in the anti-war movement had rendered him unfit to serve as commander in chief.
But any hopes he may have had of focusing on that issue were dashed in the opening minutes of the debate by a young woman in the audience who asked the candidates to stop “trashing” their opponents and start reflecting “the genuine complexity and difficulty of the issues” that related to the needs of people. Her concern was quickly echoed by the audience as a whole, and by the debate’s lone moderator, ABC news commentator Carole Simpson.
Simpson asked the audience, a group of undecided Virginia voters selected by the Gallup Organization: “Are you pleased with how the campaign is going?”
A chorus of “no’s” came from the audience and Simpson called on a man who said he was a “domestic mediator . . . meeting the needs of the children . . . " He asked the three candidates if they could “focus on the issues and not the personalities and mud.
“I agree with him,” Clinton declared.
“President Bush?” said Simpson.
“Let’s do it,” said Bush, “Let’s do it.” While defending his assault on Clinton on grounds that “character is part of being President,” Bush launched no more personal attacks on his Democratic rival, though he returned to the issue of trust in his closing statement.
Clinton unscored the lack of acrimony by not taking up an apparent invitation by Simpson to attack Bush on his handling of aid to Iraq before the Gulf War.
Members of the audience queried the candidates about the budget deficit, the nation’s infrastructure, even asking them how they personally had been affected by the national debt.
One questioner asked Clinton whether he would sign a contract barring him from a second term if he failed to meet his own deficit-reduction targets. Clinton has said his economic agenda would allow the nation to cut the deficit in half over four years.
The Democratic nominee said he would avoid such a pledge, maintaining that a President “should not be judged solely on the deficit,” and warning that reducing the annual shortfall too swiftly would cost jobs. “You’ll have a shot at me in four years, and you can vote me right out if you think I’ve done a lousy job,” he said.
Bush then took a shot at Clinton for proposing higher taxes on the wealthy as part of his economic program. The President cited his own pledge to oppose tax increases and his endorsement of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. “I went for one tax increase, and when I make a mistake, I admit it--said it wasn’t the right thing to do,” Bush said.
Perot, who has turned battling the national debt into a personal crusade, complained that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats take responsibility for the economy’s weakness, and he vowed to solve the deficit problem once and for all.
One member of the audience asked the candidates how they would deal with projections that Medicare, Social Security and the government’s pension guarantee funds all would run out of money in coming years, starting with 1997 and ending in 2036.
Bush avoided any details in his answer, but insisted that the Social Security trust fund had been “fixed” and assured the audience that the “full faith and credit” of the United States was still well respected.
“A sound fiscal policy is the best answer,” Bush concluded. He said he has proposed financial reform legislation to bring the banking and credit systems into the modern age.
Perot, in a rambling answer, said that proper leadership could bring a consensus on the best approach to difficult problems: “Medicare and Medicaid are a mess,” he declared. “There are people all over the government who if they could touch it with a screwdriver could fix it.”
When he was told by moderator Simpson that he was out of time, Perot snapped: “Do you want to fix the problem or sound-bite it ?”
Clinton loaded detail into his responses to several questions, declaring that the Social Security trust fund is now running a $70-billion annual surplus because of six payroll tax increases in recent years on those making $51,000 a year or less.
Medicare and Medicaid costs cannot be controlled without overall health care cost controls, he said. As for private pension funds, he said there would have to be stronger financial requirements to assure that they would be able to pay retirees without a government bail-out.
He also took a jab at Bush’s famous “read my lips” declaration in 1988: “I don’t want you to read my lips, and I sure don’t want you to read his,” Clinton said, nodding toward the President. “I want you to read our plans.”
The discussion over reform of the American education system perhaps most clearly captured the three candidates’ different approaches to national problems. Bush called for innovative programs tested in local areas with minimal “federal mandates”; Clinton reeled off a detailed, multi-point program with an array of government incentives, and Perot vowed just to sift through the ideas posed by all sides and pick the best ones.
Bush extolled his proposal to give parents federal vouchers and let them choose whether to use them to send their children to public, private or religious schools--a system that he said would generate constructive competition among schools.
“Schools that are not chosen, improve,” he insisted.
Clinton challenged Bush on that point, saying: “I don’t think we should spend tax money on private schools.” He pushed his proposal for a federal-state program to boost literacy and to allow high school graduates to repay their college tuition by a term of public service. Head Start programs for preschool children should be made available to all youngsters, he said, at a cost of $5 billion over six years.
Perot’s wide-ranging answer called for breaking up large schools into smaller units and included pointed gibes at big city schools he said were more interested in fielding powerful football teams to “win a district” than in providing a good education.
Perot and Clinton both claimed particular expertise in the subject, citing education reform initiatives they directed in their home states. Perot, predictably, drew the biggest laugh of the night, ending with an anecdote about a Houston youngster who “kept a chicken in his bathtub” and missed dozens of school days by taking it to livestock shows.
Perot, reciting statistics indicating that Americans pay the most but receive far from the best care, blamed Washington lobbyists for a system he says now serves special interests rather than average people.
Clinton again countered with a five-point plan he said would extend coverage to all Americans and reduce spiraling costs. “We need a drastic simplification of the health care system,” he said, including restrictions on the insurance industry and limits on increases in pharmaceutical costs.
Bush stressed one of his favorite approaches--new limits on medical malpractice lawsuits.
Bush stressed that despite the nation’s domestic woes, it can “not pull back into isolation” as it has at times in the past.
“We are the United States and we have a responsibility to lead,” he said. Bush boasted of his foreign policy record, declaring: “Forty or 45 countries have gone democratic since I’ve been President. . . . This is exciting. . . . You hear a lot about the bad things that happened on my watch but I would hope people think this is pretty good.”
Alluding to the military victory over Iraq, he added: “If it weren’t for us, Saddam Hussein would be sitting on top of three-fifths of the world oil supply and he’d have nuclear weapons.”
Clinton and Perot also spoke of an active international role, particularly in helping the former Soviet states with their political conversion, but asserted that the United States must strengthen its economy so that it can afford to exert its influence.
The Democratic candidate said he supports the so-called Brady bill, legislation which would establish a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun. Clinton also said he favors imposing restrictions on the sale of assault weapons.
The Brady bill was named for Jim Brady, President Reagan’s first press secretary, who was paralyzed during a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan.
By contrast, Bush said he is opposed to the Brady bill because it is “not tough enough on criminals.”
“I am not for national registration of firearms,” the President said. He argued that some of the states with the toughest gun legislation have the highest rates of crime.
Perot agreed with Bush. “I agree it’s a timid step in the right direction,” he said of the Brady bill. " . . . Why pass a law that won’t fix (the problem)?”
Nelson reported from Washington and Gerstenzang from Richmond. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Rudy Abramson, John Broder, William Eaton, Douglas Frantz, Paul Houston, Jim Mann, Jonathan Peterson and David G. Savage, all in Washington.
RELATED STORIES, DEBATE EXCERPTS: A24, A25
The Battle of Richmond
Some notable quotes from Thursday’s debate, the second of three contests between the presidential candidates:
NOTABLE QUOTES FROM THE DEBATE
‘You can’t turn the White House into the Waffle House--you’ve got to say what you’re for.’
‘You have to decide whether you want to change or not. We do not need four more years of an economic theory that does not work.’
‘While we sit here tonight, we will go into debt an additional $50 million in an hour and a half. Now, it’s not the Republicans’ fault, of course, and it’s not the Democrats’ fault. And what I’m looking for is, who did it?’
‘You’ll have a shot at me in four years, and you can vote me right out if you think I’ve done a lousy job. And I would welcome you to do that.’
‘I intend to be there one term. I do not intend to spend one minute of one day thinking about reelection. I would take absolutely no compensation.’
‘The exciting thing is that the fear of nuclear war is down, and you hear all the bad stuff that’s happened on my watch--I hope people will recognize that this is something pretty good for mankind.’
HOW IT PLAYED
‘I think the whole election was crystallized in one exchange between Bush and a woman who asked about how the recession had impacted each individual candidate. And Bush said, “I’m not sure I get it.” Bill Clinton got it. That’s the whole election crystallized.’
--Ray Mabus, former Democratic governor of Mississippi
‘I liked the format. But I felt that the moderator treated Perot like a lesser candidate. She seemed to give Clinton all the time he wanted.’
--Betty Sachtleben, spokeswoman for Perot in Missouri
‘A clear win.’
--Robert M. Teeter, President’s campaign chairman
‘A ll in all, I probably wish for a fourth candidate.’
--Steve Gunn, Independent member of Louisiana Legislature
Final Debate Is Monday
Here are details on the final presidential debate, on Monday:
Time: 4 p.m. PDT
Place: East Lansing, Mich.
Format: Single moderator for first half, panel for the second
ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, C-SPAN and Fox are carrying the debates live.