GOP PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES: Health Care Issues Make Debut
The six Republican presidential candidates last night broke their recent silence on health care, addressing issues including the right to sue, Medicare and abortion. At yesterday's Des Moines, IA, debate, frontrunner George W. Bush said that he supports the right of patients to sue their HMOs and would establish a national review board to extend the standard to everyone. The Texas governor also told moderator Tom Brokaw that privatizing Medicare and Medicaid is a "bad idea," noting, "I think Medicare is the responsibility of the federal government. It's a commitment we've got to keep." He added, "The problem with Medicare is ... the government decides everything ... how the patient chooses things and how doctors perform. I think we need to give patients more choice and doctors more flexibility." Sen. John McCain (AZ) lamented the failure of the Breaux-Thomas Medicare reform plan, calling it "a good blueprint for a way that we could begin to address this multifaceted issue." Pledging to devote 10% of the budget surplus to the program, he said, "I have the guts to take the money where it shouldn't be spent in Washington and put it where it should be spent." McCain also highlighted the prescription drug problem for seniors, arguing for a program that offers matching funds for prescription drugs (MSNBC Transcript, 12/13).
Although candidates Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer and Sen. Orrin Hatch (UT) repeatedly returned to the abortion issue last night, linking it to school violence and Chinese trade status, Bush dodged the topic. Responding to a challenge from rival Gary Bauer to commit to an antiabortion running mate, should he receive the nomination, the Texas governor said it would be "incredibly presumptive for someone who has yet to earn his party's nomination to be ... picking vice presidents." Bush said his main criterion in choosing a vice president would be finding "somebody who can be the president," and who would remain loyal and share his conservative views (MSNBC Transcript, 12/13). He "essentially chided" Bauer for focusing on a narrow and divisive issue, the New York Times reports (Bruni, 12/14). But Bauer maintained that the GOP's refusal to rank abortion as a paramount issue is "the reason my party's lost the White House twice. They think women enjoy one and a half million abortions a year. Women are pro-life. ... They love babies. They don't want them destroyed in the womb" (MSNBC, 12/13). He later expressed his disappointment with Bush's response, telling Chris Matthews on "Hardball," "I went into this debate ... by signaling 36 hours ago that I was going to ask the governor whether he would have a pro-life running mate. And I was shocked, with 36 hours preparation, that he still couldn't answer that question" (MSNBC, "Hardball," 12/13). According to NBC's Washington Bureau Chief and "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert, Bush's response to the Bauer challenge represents a "dual strategy ... He wants to win the nomination but he also wants to win the general election and he believes if he espouses the views of abortion, as articulated by Mr. Bauer, it makes him unelectable in the fall. He has to reassure American women that he is open-minded towards the issue of abortion. He may personally be opposed but he is not going to take their right away" (NBC, "Today," 12/14). So far Bush's attempt to court female voters seems to be working. A survey of female voters by the women's network ivillage.com found that 54% of Republican women support Bush, compared to only 8% for McCain. A hypothetical contest between Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore gives the governor the 7% edge among women. The news has abortion-rights groups alarmed, as they try to "undercut Bush's support among women with television ads," NBC "Nightly News" correspondent David Bloom reports. National Abortion Rights Action League President Kate Michelman said that women "just don't know enough about him yet," but predicts that "when they do, he will lose support" (NBC, "Nightly News," 12/13).
Sizing Up the Debate
The 90-minute debate marked a slight departure from the genteel character of the candidates' two previous meetings, as Bush responded more aggressively to attacks and attempted to cast himself as "a candidate not from Washington and as a man with strong conservative convictions," the Washington Post reports (Balz/Von Drehle, 12/14). Bush's "assertive demeanor and more confident manner" led many experts to speculate that the performance "may have reassured some supporters and quieted some critics," the New York Times notes. "Bush did more than hold his own tonight. He was a lot more relaxed, a lot more in control, a lot more sure of himself," Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said (Brownstein, Los Angeles Times, 12/14). NBC news analyst and Newsweek's chief political correspondent Howard Fineman agreed, noting that Bush seemed to benefit from the looser format, which allowed the candidates to talk more in-depth about issues and "encouraged [Bush] to be a little more forthcoming than he has been." He added that although McCain "seemed to be a little more defensive," he managed to solidify "his message as an outsider and a reformer, and he's going to stake his candidacy on that for better or worse." Fineman also said that Bauer performed well and may become the "favorite of ardent religious conservatives and other conservatives" (MSNBC.com, 12/13). Come January 2000, the candidates will face off again, once in Iowa and twice in New Hampshire (West, Baltimore Sun, 12/14).