COMMENTARY by Howard Gleckman December 14, 1999

From Bush and Gore, Hopelessly Conventional Economic Plans
Their proposals are the opposite of the bold thinking that America needs -- and Forbes and Bradley are offering

In recent days, the nation's leading Presidential contenders -- Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore -- have laid out major chunks of their economic agendas. Trouble is, neither is very bold, and neither candidate seems to be either willing or able to think outside the (lock)box.

Bush has proposed a $1.3 trillion, 10-year tax cut that includes a hefty rate reduction, repeal of the estate tax, some modest tax breaks for the working poor, and relief from the so-called "marriage penalty" that taxes households with two breadwinners earning comparable incomes at a higher rate than households with the same income from one breadwinner. It's an off-the-shelf GOP tax bill, wrapped up with a "compassionate conservative" ribbon (for more on Bush, see "The GOP Debate in Iowa: Bush Doesn't Gain Much Distance").

Gore's economic agenda includes virtually nothing new. It's built around his own efforts to tinker with the tax code -- marriage-penalty relief, education tax breaks, and an expansion of tax benefits for the working poor. The Gore formula: Put some retread on a few old Clinton ideas such as earned income and education tax credits, add the politically popular marriage-penalty fixes, and call it an agenda.

DULL SEDANS. Here's another way to look at it: Gore and Bush have come up with the political equivalents of a Honda Accord and a Toyota Camry. Safe, secure, reliable, utterly predictable, and hopelessly conventional. They are providing the kind of political discourse that you can easily lose in the parking lot of ideas.

At a time of extraordinary creativity on the part of American business, the nation's policy debate seems caught between snarling partisanship and poll-driven Pablum. If businesses execs are succeeding by thinking outside the box, Bush, and especially Gore, are trapped squarely inside. No imagination. No risk. No vision-thing.

It's not like no big issues are out there. Keeping Social Security and Medicare solvent over the long term, simplifying the tax code (it needs another overhaul similar to the 1986 effort that stripped away many loopholes and clutter), and questions of protection of privacy for consumers in cyberspace are all on the table -- awaiting creative solutions. There's no better time to address them than during this era of economic prosperity.

Some candidates are willing to get out front. GOP hopeful Steve Forbes has laid out some tough, specific ideas for restructuring taxes and retirement. Where Bush would fiddle with tax rates and distribute a few baubles to this group or that, Forbes would scrap the entire system and start anew.

NO FREE RIDE. In the same spirit, Democratic Presidential wannabe Bill Bradley has put forward an ambitious health-care reform plan. Where Gore would do little more than preserve the rickety Medicare system, Bradley wants to take steps toward providing health care to everyone.

This isn't to say that either Bradley or Forbes have found the solutions to these problems. But at least they're willing to tackle them. Sure, a cynic may say, it's easy for them -- they have little to lose.

But the front-runners shouldn't get a free ride. Bush needs to show that his candidicay is more than a blue-blood pedigree and a desire to avoid offending his fat-cat benefactors. And Gore must prove he can govern out of the shadow of Bill Clinton. Based on what we've seen so far, both have a long way to go.

Gleckman is senior correspondent for Business Week in Washington

EDITED BY DOUGLAS HARBRECHT _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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