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July 8, 2004

Campaign 2004

Pitt hosted two veteran Pennsylvania politicians last week in a debate, more decorous than combative, over who should be elected president this fall.

The demarcation was drawn on party lines between two-term state Auditor General Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democrat supporting presumptive nominee Sen. John Kerry, and four-term U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican backing incumbent President George W. Bush.

Robert G. Hazo, director of the University Honors College’s American Experience Program, moderated the debate, which was sponsored by Hazo’s program.

In addition, David M. Shribman, executive editor and vice president of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, made a cameo appearance as devil’s advocate, arguing that shortcomings of Kerry and Bush made them both unworthy of the presidency.

Specter and Casey agreed that cordial, respectful discussions such as the June 30 debate denoted an essential part of the American political system: to have an informed electorate. Both decried voter apathy, and concurred that 2004 is a particularly important election year for the future of the country, given the uncertain state of the world.

They further agreed that money played too important a role in getting elected and that the talents that make a good candidate do not necessarily carry over to success in office.

They disagreed, on behalf on their party’s standard bearer, on most of the major issues of the campaign: health care, the war in Iraq, education, the economy and leadership qualities.

Health care
“The question to ask, in addition to ‘for whom should you vote for president,’ is ‘Are we in Pennsylvania better off today than we were four years ago?'” said Casey, firing the first salvo. “In health care, we are not better off: 260,000 more Pennsylvanians don’t have health care [insurance] today than four years ago.”

In addition, Casey said, health care premiums are skyrocketing, with as much as a 60 percent increase in the last year and with employees taking on more of the premium costs. Health care costs are playing havoc with the economy, affecting everything from higher unemployment to higher property taxes, and are especially burdensome on small businesses, he said.

Moreover, Pennsylvania in particular, with the second highest per capita number of seniors in the nation, faces a crisis due to exorbitant prescription drug costs.

“I would submit that in terms of doing something significant on health care – bringing the costs down, ensuring quality, getting more people covered – on all these points, the Bush administration has failed and has not made those issues a priority,” Casey said.

Specter countered that President Bush had shepherded through Congress a $400 billion, 10-year plan to provide seniors with prescription drug coverage, something none of his predecessors had accomplished. “He showed leadership. The president was courageous. He did that risking the support of some Republicans, because he believed in it,” Specter said.

Bush devoted a large segment of his latest state of the union address to health care, Specter added, which demonstrated that it was a priority for his administration. “To be sure, there are costs on medical care, some of it driven up by medical malpractice insurance, which is essentially handled by the states. President Bush is working to change the structure of malpractice insurance. He has endorsed federal legislation to limit [settlements]. He’s working to lower rates for small businesses.”

In contrast, Specter said, Sen. Kerry’s proposals for health care reform are not as specific as his supporters claim. “In 20 years, [Kerry] never introduced one piece of legislation on health care; not one in 20 years,” Specter repeated for emphasis.

The war in Iraq
Shribman stirred the pot by first asking Specter to defend Bush’s policy of unilateralism regarding the invasion of Iraq without the support of many of America’s traditional allies, and then by asking Casey to defend Kerry’s apparent flip-flop on Iraq, where the candidate voted in favor of authorizing military force there, but then voted against the supplemental appropriations bill requested by the administration.

“I believe President Bush took necessary action in Iraq,” Specter said. “At the time, the U.N. seemed intractable. France, Germany, Russia all had oil interests in Iraq to protect. The president concluded that U.S. national interests prevailed over the U.N.”

The Republican senator walked a fine line when it came to the Iraq war’s justifications. “We have to recognize the enormous threat from al-Qaeda,” Specter said. “We are dealing with Muslim fundamentalists who are determined to destroy our civilization. An attack could occur any time and any place.

“The 9/11 commission confirmed contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda,” he continued. “Not that Iraq caused 9/11. The president has been explicit; he is not contending that Iraq was in cahoots with the attacks of al-Qaeda on 9/11, but that there were contacts, while not operational in nature.”

A majority of Senate Democrats, including Sen. Kerry, as well as a majority of Republicans supported the resolution authorizing military force, Specter pointed out.

“On the issue of weapons of mass destruction, we had faulty intelligence. I think that’s a fact. There have been major intelligence failures, but the president didn’t appoint CIA director George Tenet or FBI director Louis Freeh,” Specter argued. “What needs to be done is not to play the blame game. We’re working on legislation to put all these intelligence agencies under one umbrella and that will be a positive step.”

Specter pointed to some hopeful signs in recent developments in the war. “I think the president has taken the correct course in seeking more assistance from France and Germany and other countries. The U.N. Security Council endorsed the establishment of sovereignty in Iraq. I think that’s a big step forward. Iraqis should handle their own problems now. NATO agreed to send 3,500 more troops, to supplement the 6,500 there in Afghanistan and to train Iraqi forces,” he said.

Iraq now is “a magnet for terrorists,” Specter maintained. “There’s no doubt that things in Iraq are very difficult. It’s very painful to have the casualties we’re suffering there. But if we do not fight the terrorists in Iraq, in Israel, all over the world, then we’ll have to fight them here. We’re much better off fighting them there.”

Casey defended Kerry’s stance on Iraq by distinguishing between the war’s outset and later circumstances.

“Senator Kerry voted for the use of force under false pretenses based upon the intelligence available at the time,” Casey said. “He trusted the intelligence community; he trusted the administration, and he, I think, feels he was misled. A lot of Americans feel misled by that intelligence failure.”

That suspicion caused Kerry to question the administration’s rationale and justification for the supplemental $87 billion. “The administration failed to plan for after the conflict, for winning the peace. There was an erosion of confidence in what the bill purported to pay for. The bill lacked ingredients of truthfulness and Senator Kerry challenged whether it was sound fiscal policy in an environment where those working for Halliburton are doing quite well with no-bid contracts worth billions of dollars.

“Where John Kerry diverts from President Bush on the issue of Iraq: What was the plan, if there was one? There was virtually no plan since the president declared the so-called ceasing of major hostilities.”

If elected president, Kerry would take the country to war “only when we have to go to war, not want to go to war,” Casey said. “And he would let the American people know the whole story and build alliances.”

Casey said the Bush administration had not succeeded in providing adequate funding for public education. “We had a debate in this country a couple years ago that resulted in the No Child Left Behind education reform bill, which for too many school districts and too many families really means most of the funding is left behind. Pennsylvania is being shortchanged in the [administration] of that act,” Casey said.

Specter acknowledged that while he supported the No Child Left Behind Act in principle, it needed certain modifications. “This is an innovative bill, a bi-partisan bill. But there is no such thing as a perfect bill,” Specter said. The primary concept to provide accountability for teachers and testing for students is sound, he added. “No Child Left Behind in the long run is a good plan, but it needs to provide more flexibility,” to include different standards for students with learning disabilities, for example.

Specter added that the Bush administration increased the budget for education by $13.5 billion during its first three years, compared to $12.5 billion in the last three years of President Clinton’s second term.

The economy
Casey maintained that Pennsylvania’s economy has suffered under the Bush administration’s policies. “We’ve seen job losses, especially in manufacturing,” he said. “We have 159,000 fewer manufacturing jobs in the last four years. The tool and die industry in Pennsylvania has been virtually wiped out. The cost of college is up; the cost of gasoline is up significantly, putting pressure on families. The tax cuts are for those making over $200,000 a year. John Kerry wants to eliminate those and have tax cuts for middle-income families who need them.”

Specter maintained that the U.S. economy turned the corner toward recovery once the Bush tax cuts took effect. “In 2000, the economy was in a state of decline.

President Bush eliminated taxes for those making less then $10,000, and he reduced taxes to stimulate the economy [just as] in 1961, when President John Kennedy did the same thing. There’s no doubt the economy has been stimulated.”

Specter cited figures indicating that 1,400,000 new jobs had been created in the United States between September 2003 and May 2004. “In Pennsylvania, just this year since January, we’ve seen 44,000 new jobs and many of these are manufacturing jobs. My view is that the tax cuts have been effective.”

Leadership qualities
Moderator Hazo asked the debaters whether a president, like a barber, taxi driver or surgeon must do in those respective careers, should have to demonstrate qualifications commensurate with being the most powerful person in the world.

Both discussants agreed that there need not be defined qualifications to become president.

Casey said that the “meat-grinder” of presidential campaigns allowed voters to learn what a candidate is like.

Specter said that Bush had demonstrated leadership as president in a number of ways, including creating a Department of Homeland Security and funding it at $29 billion, pushing through a prescription drug bill for seniors, improving the economy and supporting public education reform.

“I want to tell a little story about the president,” Specter said. “You remember a while back when there were charges that President Bush had been AWOL from the Air National Guard? We were talking and he said, ‘Arlen, do you remember where you were in January 1972?’ No, Mr. President, I can’t say where I was then. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I know my teeth were in Alabama, because the dental records say that. Arlen, you’re a lawyer, do you think if my teeth were in Alabama, I was there also?’

“I tell you that story to show that President Bush is in a good frame of mind, that his leadership has been strong, and that he has not changed from his beliefs. I think he’s doing a good job.

“For President Bush,” Specter continued, “the principal issue is our survival. Wherever we find terrorism, we have to deal with it. With al-Qaeda, intelligence is very important. Senator Kerry in 1995 wanted to cut the intelligence bill. Maybe it was politically expedient for him not to vote for the $87 billion to support our troops. But once we’re [at war] you can’t leave our soldiers out to dry.”

Casey countered that Kerry’s life exudes leadership qualities, from the time at 25 when he earned medals skippering a U.S. naval vessel in Vietnam, through his support of education programs such as Head Start, to protecting the environment, to being fiscally responsible.

“John Kerry has a real understanding of what it takes to be courageous, what it means to fight for people and fight against the forces that will not stand up for workers and families. He has plans and a vision.”

Those plans include health care relief for small businesses, a strong military, support for education, reviving the economy and protecting the environment – all issues of concern to Pennsylvanians, Casey said.

Kerry even has separated himself from some Democrats by making proposals that actually can be paid for, he said. “How? First, repeal the tax cut for the wealthy,” which would net the treasury a trillion and half dollars, “and second by cutting [unnecessary] costs,” Casey said.

“I believe we need a new direction, we need change. And that doesn’t mean just elect a new person or endorse a set of platitudes, but to implement all these proposals that Senator Kerry is putting forth.

“The fundamental focus of John Kerry’s plan is to make America strong at home and respected around the world. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can say that exists today under the leadership of President Bush,” Casey said.

-Peter Hart

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