TEMPE, Ariz. – President Bush and Sen. John Kerry hammered at each other in their third and final debate Wednesday, accusing each other of misleading the country about their domestic records as they clawed for advantage heading into the final weeks of a campaign that polls show is neck-and-neck.
Bush accused Kerry of making an “empty promise” to Americans on his plans for the economy and health care, arguing that Kerry couldn’t pay for all the new federal help.
Kerry countered that Bush’s domestic record has left the middle class squeezed by job losses, declining incomes and rising costs.
Each man was aggressive, well versed in numbers and details of domestic programs, and at times caustic.
Bush accused Kerry of listing a “litany of complaints” rather than an affordable plan for change and said he sat on the “far left bank” of the political mainstream.
Kerry shot back that Bush was in no position to criticize after turning a projected federal budget surplus into record deficits.
“Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order,” Kerry said.
Yet neither scored a rhetorical knockout that might dramatically shift the dynamics of the close contest.
With less than three weeks left until Election Day, the debate offered voters one last chance to see the two major-party candidates side by side, live, without the filters of advertising or the news media.
Bush defended his economic record, saying his tax cuts have helped working- and middle-class families.
“If you have a child, you got a $1,000 child credit,” Bush said. “If you’re married, we reduced the marriage penalty … We created a 10 percent bracket to help lower-income Americans. A family of four making $40,000 received about $1,700 in tax relief. It’s your money.”
Kerry countered with a detailed indictment of Bush’s tenure on the home front, saying soaring costs have eroded savings from tax cuts.
“Health care costs have gone up 64 percent,” Kerry said. “Tuitions have gone up 35 percent. Gasoline prices up 30 percent. Medicare premiums went up 17 percent a few days ago. Prescription drugs are up 12 percent …
“But guess what, America: The wages of Americans have gone down, the jobs that are being created in Arizona right now paying about $13,700 less than the jobs we’re losing. And the president just walks on by this problem.”
Kerry accused Bush of presiding over a deteriorating health care system, noting that 5 million Americans have lost their insurance since Bush took office. “The president has turned his back on the wellness of America,” Kerry said.
Bush charged that Kerry’s health-care plan would cost $1.2 trillion, shift 8 million people from private to government insurance and amount to a government takeover. He charged that it would lead to rationing of services and “poor quality health.”
“I am not proposing a government-run program,” Kerry countered, saying his proposed expansion of health care would build on privately run health insurance and give Americans a choice of private plans such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
Asked about rising health costs, Bush said patients should have more say in buying health care and lawyers should have less.
Giving patients tax-sheltered accounts to buy health care directly would create competition and drive costs down, Bush said. He also said lawsuits force doctors to practice needlessly expensive “defensive medicine” out of fear of lawsuits, costing the country up to $160 billion a year.
Kerry said Bush contributed to rising health care costs by blocking the right of Americans to get less expensive prescription drugs from Canada.
On Social Security, Bush repeated his proposal to allow younger workers to divert part of their taxes into private investment accounts. “They need to get better rates of return than the rates of return being given in the current Social Security Trust,” Bush said.
Kerry said that would take as much as $2 trillion out of the system that’s needed to pay benefits for today’s retirees. “That’s an invitation to disaster,” Kerry said. If events show Social Security needs repair, Kerry said, he would organize experts to plan what to do, but pledged: “I will not privatize it. I will not cut benefits.”
Turning to the economy and jobs, Kerry said Bush is the first president in 72 years to preside over a net loss of jobs. He also said Bush is the only president to have family incomes decline for three years and exports decline. “I’m going to reverse that,” Kerry said.
Bush said the best answer to jobs lost to less expensive foreign labor is to educate and train American workers for new jobs. He said he had expanded help for job training and community college. “We want to help pay for you to gain the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century,” Bush said.
Both men also spoke of their religious faith.
Kerry, a Roman Catholic, said, “My faith affects everything that I do and choose. … That’s why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment, protect this Earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice.”
Yet he said he would never let the anti-abortion teachings of his church influence his public life and emphasized his defense of abortion rights as “between a woman, God and her doctor.”
Bush, a Methodist, said faith was a vital part of his life. “Prayer and religion sustain me,” he said. “I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency.”
But he added that he would never impose his beliefs on others.
“You’re equally an American if you choose to worship an Almighty and if you choose not to,” he said. “If you’re a Christian, Jew or Muslim, you’re equally an American.”
Asked if they believe homosexuality is a choice, Bush said, “I don’t know,” but emphasized that America owes every person respect and dignity. At the same time, he said he believes marriage must be between a man and a woman and that he was “deeply concerned” that some state courts are permitting homosexual marriage. That’s why he supports amending the U.S. Constitution, he said.
Kerry said he believed homosexuals are being who they are and said he thought Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, who’s openly gay, would say so if she were asked. He, too, said he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman, but he said state courts are able to enforce marriage laws without amending the Constitution and that every couple should be entitled to “partnership rights.”