Nation/World

Kemp, Gore Likely To Stick To Issues Debate On Merits Of Supply-Side Economics Expected To Take Center Stage

At last, the tough issues: By an odd quirk of history, tonight’s vice-presidential debate might prove the most meaningful policy discussion of the 1996 campaign.

On one side is Jack Kemp, the former congressman who has championed supply-side economics for more than a decade.

On the other is Al Gore, the vice president who wrote a controversial book on the environment and has served as the green conscience of the Clinton administration.

It’s a unique situation for the nation. Both men have run unsuccessfully for president. Both aspire to be the commander in chief after 2000. Neither wants to do anything to endanger his chances.

In other words, it should be a civil, thoughtful, perhaps even in-depth discussion of key issues, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political debate expert at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication.

Compared to the presidential matchups, she says, tonight “in many ways, will be a more interesting debate.”

The pressure is on Kemp. After all, his team is behind and time is running out.

What makes this so interesting is that Kemp was never expected to be here. This is the guy who angered Bob Dole by endorsing Steve Forbes in the Republican primaries after it was clear that Forbes would lose.

“Kemp was within one heartbeat of not being politically alive anymore,” said Barbara Sinclair, UCLA political science professor. “He was really being pushed out of Republican politics and sort of decided he had no real choice but to go gracefully.”

But, as we know, Dole in August abandoned his disdain for supply-side economics, prescribed it as the elixir for energizing the nation’s economy, and picked Kemp, the guru of the movement, to be his running mate.

The move pushed Kemp to the front of the pack of possible Republican nominees for 2000. However, Dole and Kemp have been unable to convince the American public that they have the right economic solution. Indeed, they are having problems convincing voters that there’s a problem that needs fixing.

Kemp tonight has the best chance to make their case. “Kemp has built his career on supply-side economics,” Jamieson said. “If anyone can make that case it should be Kemp.”

If he can’t, no one else can.

A lot of the success of tonight’s debate hinges on Jim Lehrer, the anchor of Public Broadcasting’s “NewsHour” and the choice of both sides to moderate all three debates.

Imagine, says Jamieson, how the discussion will go: Gore will say that the supply-side economics of the Reagan administration was a disaster that led to huge budget deficits. Kemp will counter that it was because the Democratic Congress never cut spending. Gore will say that the Democratic Congress cut Reagan’s proposed budgets, or it would have been worse.

The rhetoric will fly, but what about the facts of supply-side economics in the 1980s?

“Revenues did increase,” Jamieson said. “But did it get past what they would have increased anyway? What do we have reasonable reason to expect? If we have any opportunity in an electoral debate to answer (those questions), it’s in this debate.”

To get there, Lehrer will have to demonstrate his ability to make quick adjustments. He did well during the presidential debate Sunday. Tonight it will be even more critical to follow one question with another on the same topic if he doesn’t get thoughtful answers the first time.

Otherwise, we’ll never get below the surface, we’ll never get beyond the rhetoric we’ve been hearing from both sides for weeks.

While the economic debate will probably be the most significant issue, Jamieson said, also look for similar discussions on the environment, abortion and the Star Wars defense system.

These are topics on which there are clear differences between the tickets and which didn’t arise on Sunday.

What we probably won’t see is an all-out rush by Kemp. Although his team is behind, although it needs a major boost, Kemp won’t become an attack dog, says Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

Remember, this is the man who prides himself on issue-oriented politics.

“I am not convinced that we’ve done as good a job as we must do to get across to the American people the positive nature of this agenda, the growth side of it, the tax reform ideas,” Kemp told the New York Times. “It would be no secret that I do not see politics as tearing someone else down.”

That’s what makes this debate so interesting, says Hess. “He’s going to be true to himself. He has chosen, and has been authorized, not to accept the role of the traditional vice presidential candidate as an attack dog.

“This is the first time since (the Republican National Convention in) San Diego that he has an opportunity to go national. I think it would be very awkward for him to turn on himself.” xxxx GORE-KEMP DEBATE Place: Bayfront Center, St. Petersburg, Fla. Time: 6 to 7:30 tonight. Moderator: Jim Lehrer of PBS. TV coverage: ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS will broadcast live. On cable, CNN, C-SPAN and MSNBC also will carry live.



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