Cheney, Lieberman Play Games With Numbers
By Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post
Friday 6 October 2000; Page A21
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and former defense secretary Richard
B. Cheney last night might not have generated the same sparks as their
boss's debate earlier this week. But when it came to playing the
numbers game, both showed the same facility at tossing around facts
and assertions of questionable origin.
From the first question, moderator Bernard Shaw tried to get either
man to admit that the economic plans of their respective campaigns
were based on optimistic assumptions of a budget surplus over the next
decade that may not materialize. But both candidates plowed ahead,
with barely a pause, explaining how they would spend it.
Lieberman did mention that he and Vice President Gore would establish
a $300 billion "reserve fund" in case money didn't
materialize. But this is an accounting fiction, designed to showcase
the fact that Gore is using slightly less optimistic White House
budget assumptions, compared with those of Congress. Much of the extra
money, even if the assumptions today turned out to be absolutely
accurate, would not appear until 2009 and 2010, after the end of a
hypothetical second Gore-Lieberman term.
Cheney, for his part, said that George W. Bush's proposed tax cut eats
up only "one-quarter" of the surplus. This is a stretch. The
Bush campaign comes up with this figure in part by counting the entire
surplus (including Social Security funds that both parties say are
off-limits). Then, it ignores the fact that some of the surplus would
be eaten up by $300 billion in extra interest on the national debt
because the tax cut would produce less money for the government.
In fact, Bush would allocate one out of three dollars of the entire
surplus to his tax cut, and almost all of the surplus not dedicated to
On Social Security, both men made pledges that could one day haunt
them. Lieberman looked into the camera and declared, "I can pledge
to the American people categorically that no one will lose benefits
under our plan for Social Security as far forward as 2054."
But Gore's plan leaves much of the current system essentially
untouched and in fact would put new burdens on it with promised new
benefits for women. He relies on future administrations and Congresses
to funnel general tax revenue into Social Security to keep paying
benefits. Virtually no Social Security expert believes the current
system can survive another half-century without benefit cuts, tax
increases or some other fundamental restructuring.
Cheney, meanwhile, said that under Bush's plan to create individual
Social Security accounts, "we generate [returns of] at least 6
percent," three times higher than what he said retirees can now
expect from their payroll contributions.
But almost every privatization plan for Social Security assumes that
participants will see some reduction in promised benefits in exchange
for the accounts, and workers might be lucky simply to match the
current benefits with the performance in their accounts. That's
because the need to keep paying benefits to current retirees will
remain a drag on the system for decades to come.
Cheney and Lieberman tangled passionately on defense, with Cheney
saying the military is in decline and Lieberman responding that it is
still the best in the world and that it is "not right . . . to run
them down" for partisan purposes.
The irony of that exchange is that Lieberman is in some ways closer to
Texas Gov. Bush's stance on defense than is Cheney. As a member of the
Senate Armed Services Committee, Lieberman long has been one of the
leading congressional advocates of "military transformation";
that is, changing the U.S. military so that it can better deal with
the new challenges of the 21st century.
Early in the presidential campaign, Bush staked out a position
supporting military transformation, saying among other things that the
way to change the military is to skip a generation of technology and
start developing newer, better weaponry.
So when Cheney appears to want a return to the military of the Persian
Gulf War era, he is calling for something that no one in the military
is advocating. The Joint Chiefs of Staff testified last week that
current tactical readiness is good, but that more spending is needed
to develop the military of tomorrow.
At the same time, when Lieberman said that Bush's call for skipping a
generation of technology would "cripple our readiness," he was
essentially criticizing the transformation view that he himself has
advocated in the past.
In the discussion on oil, Cheney said there had been no new refineries
in 10 years, suggesting this was a Clinton-Gore problem. But it would
have been more accurate to say there have been no new refineries in 25
years, including during President George Bush's
administration. Moreover, according to the Energy Information
Administration, refinery capacity declined from 1981 to 1993, but
since then has risen slightly, though it is still lower than in 1981.
Cheney also said that "stay-at-home moms" get no tax relief
from Gore's package of targeted tax cuts. But Gore does offer a
relatively small carrot: a $500 tax credit if a parent stays at home
with a baby under the age of 12 months.
Both men made claims on education that sound contradictory, but each
was right, depending on the data set. Cheney said, "There's been
no progress on reading scores in the last eight years, almost no
progress on math." That's correct, based on the result of the
National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, they've been
stagnant for 20 years, not just recently.
Lieberman responded, "Average testing scores are up." Average
math scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test, taken by college-bound
seniors, just recorded a gain but verbal scores have been level for
five years in a row.
Cheney, however, overstated the difference in academic performance
between whites and minorities when he said it "is as big as it's
ever been." There has been some improvement since the 1970s, but
not in the past decade.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.
Copyright 2000 The Washington Post