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Rivals Choose Their Numbers Wisely

Times Staff Writers

There were no whoppers.

But in the last debate before the election, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry each hurled armloads of statistics and factoids designed to cast his opponent’s positions as inadequate, unworkable or out of step with mainstream America, and his own as those of a moderate leader who understood the nation’s needs.

Rather than baldly misstating each other’s positions or otherwise departing from the truth, as often happened in their previous encounters, Bush and Kerry used select statistics and assertions to exaggerate their rival’s vulnerabilities and put the best possible spin on their own records.

“It’s not a question of misstating numbers. It’s just a question of which numbers you state,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com, a research firm in West Chester, Pa.

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“It’s almost as if they’ve memorized 30 different statistics, and they’ve found a way to use each and every one of them, sometimes twice.”

For example, on a question about illegal immigration, Kerry asserted that Bush had done little to make the borders more secure or stem the influx of undocumented workers from Mexico. “The borders are more leaking today than they were before 9/11,” he said.

Bush shot back that Kerry’s statement “shows that he doesn’t know the borders.” In fact, Bush said, his administration has stepped up border security efforts.

What the record shows is that what each candidate said was substantially true. But each was emphasizing a different aspect of a complicated reality.

The Bush administration has assigned more Border Patrol agents to the southern U.S.-Mexico boundary and sought to discourage Mexican migrants by flying them back deep into their country. It has increased surveillance of crossing routes used by migrants.

Despite those efforts, the level of illegal immigration has remained substantially unchanged -- largely because the robust market for low-wage Mexican labor in the United States continues to be a magnet.

On the issue of jobs, both candidates cited statistics that may have been technically accurate, but somewhat distorted the employment record under Bush.

Kerry said that Bush had presided over the loss of 1.6 million jobs and that the new jobs being created in the economy pay, on average, $9,000 a year less than the jobs that were lost. Both numbers are open to dispute.

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Kerry’s job-loss estimate reflects only private-sector employment. When government jobs are added in, the net loss since Bush took office is 821,000.

The $9,000 pay gap cited by Kerry is based on an analysis by the liberal Economic Policy Institute. Some analysts consider its data ambiguous, and other studies have reached the opposite conclusion.

The Labor Department, which generated the labor market data underlying both interpretations, has said its statistics were too limited to resolve the question.

Bush claimed that 1.9 million jobs had been created during the last 13 months. But this has been one of the weakest post-recession recoveries on record, and the recent rate of job creation has not kept up with population growth.

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With the number of uninsured Americans rising as healthcare costs escalate, Kerry criticized Bush for failing to meet U.S. healthcare needs. But he exaggerated the scope of his own plan by saying, “I have a plan to cover all Americans.”

His plan does not guarantee coverage for all Americans because no aspect of it is mandatory. He proposes to offer tax incentives for small businesses and individuals, and to give employers the option of having their workers’ catastrophic health costs covered by the federal government.

Bush raised the specter of out-of-control malpractice insurance premiums, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office disagrees with his contention that changing the medical malpractice laws would have a significant effect on overall healthcare costs.

In critiquing Kerry’s healthcare plan as a “government takeover,” Bush cited the findings of an analysis by a private consulting firm in Virginia called the Lewin Group, which he said estimated the cost of Kerry’s plan at $1.2 trillion -- almost twice what Kerry estimated it would be.

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That is what the group found, but a Lewin official has recently objected to calling the Kerry plan a government takeover.

On the flu vaccine shortage, Bush suggested the problem was caused by a company “out of England.”

Actually, the British company is a unit of an American firm.

Bush said he sought to “reduce the number of abortions” in America by passing a federal law to ban so-called partial-birth abortions.

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But that law would not reduce abortions. Instead, it would force doctors to use another procedure to end late-term pregnancies. The law has been blocked by the courts.

Taxes and spending provoked another numbers duel.

Kerry accused the president of favoring the rich with his tax cuts. “The middle class has seen their tax burden go up, and the wealthiest’s tax burden has gone down,” he said.

The accusation, though technically accurate, was incomplete.

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The tax measures passed since Bush took office have reduced the taxes of all income classes. In absolute dollars, wealthy taxpayers got the biggest reductions because they have large incomes and pay large tax bills.

According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, taxpayers in the middle one-fifth of all households received an average tax cut of $756 under the first three Bush tax cuts, while those in the top one-fifth received average cuts of $4,469. The top 1% of taxpayers received average reductions of $33,864. The average for all Americans was $1,448.

Bush claimed that Kerry’s policy proposals would entail $2.2 trillion in new spending, creating a “tax gap” that would have to be filled by raising taxes on middle-class Americans. His characterization overstates the scope of Kerry’s spending plans, and asserts an outcome that Kerry has vowed he would not allow.

According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, Kerry’s healthcare initiatives and other spending proposals would cost $771 billion over 10 years, and his middle-class tax cut proposals would reduce federal revenue by $498 billion, increasing the federal deficit by $1.3 trillion over the next decade.

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But Kerry pledged to rein in his spending plans if necessary.

The Concord Coalition analysis determined that Bush’s economic agenda would do just as much damage to the nation’s balance sheet as Kerry’s. It said Bush’s proposals to extend tax cuts scheduled to expire over the next few years would reduce federal revenue by $1.2 trillion, and his spending plans would increase outlays by $82 billion, increasing the 10-year deficit by $1.3 trillion.

The two men disagreed on how accomplished Kerry had been as a member of the Senate since 1985. Kerry claimed at least 56 bills and resolutions he sponsored passed the Senate.

It is difficult to measure a legislator’s effectiveness by the number of bills with his or her name on them because passing many minor bills is far less significant than writing a landmark law.

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In general, Kerry has not been seen as a master legislator, in part because he has never been a committee chairman, where most of the power to write bills lies.

He has focused most of his energy in the Senate on investigative enterprises, such as the hearings he led investigating corruption in the Bank of Credit and Commerce.

On education reform, Kerry said that the president “refused to fully fund” his signature No Child Left Behind school reform program, shortchanging it by $28 billion. But Bush countered that only a liberal senator could say “that a 49% increase in funding for education was not enough.”

Again, both were using facts selectively.

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Spending on elementary education has soared while Bush has been in office. Kerry was referring to the Democratic charge, supported by many education officials in states, that the president was not providing the funding necessary for schools to meet the ambitious standards of the education reform law.

Kerry charged that the administration had “cut the Pell grants,” which help low- and middle-income students pay for college. In fact, the total number of Pell grant recipients has grown under Bush, as has the maximum amount. But Democrats criticize the president for failing to make good on his 2000 campaign promise to raise the maximum Pell grant to $5,100.

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Times staff writers Janet Hook, Richard Simon and Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this report.

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