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Arizona Republic

Laurie Roberts

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Somehow, it seems appropriate that the last of the presidential confabs was held at Gammage. It is, after all, one of Arizona's premier performance venues.

Where better to have an event so staged, so scripted, so sadly lacking when it comes to digging out those devilish details that each candidate so blithely glosses over?

During the last few days, America has met over the water cooler and argued about who won Wednesday night's showdown at ASU. Me? I think we all lost. We didn't have a debate. We had a dual press conference.

The Commission on Presidential Debates should be renamed the Commission on Presidential Performances. It's just a flunky front for the Republicans and Democrats who set the rules such that the candidates weren't even allowed to talk to each other, much less have a conversation or - dare I use the word? - an actual debate.

What a shame.

I would have liked more discussion between the men who would lead us, so that maybe I could understand how John Kerry thinks he can extend health insurance to 95 percent of America without taxing the middle class. According to critics, his plan will cost twice what he'll gain by rescinding George Bush's tax cuts for the rich. So how's he going to pay for it?

I would have liked more give and take, so that maybe I could understand how a president who has presided over the first net loss of jobs in 72 years plans to put people back to work - other than sending everybody back to community college, that is.

I would have liked to hear Kerry acknowledge that a punch to the gut of Social Security is coming and explain what he'd do when 77 million baby boomers retire. How will we support them all?

Yet all we got from Kerry was: "I will not cut the benefits. And we're going to be fiscally responsible. And we will take care of Social Security."

Oh yeah, how?

Bush, at least, has a plan. But I would have liked to hear him explain how he can allow younger workers to divert payroll taxes into personal accounts when the money is needed to pay today's retirees. His plan will cost $1 trillion to 2 trillion, but Bush didn't explain how he'll pay for it.

I would have liked to hear both men justify the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, which won't actually lead to much jobs creation at all, according to a story in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, but it will give corporations a $136 billion tax cut.

And I would have liked to hear them talk about the budget. We had an annual surplus of $313 billion when Bush took office. Now, there's a $415 billion deficit.

Both men say they'll cut the deficit by half in five years, so as not to stick our kids with the tab. Wouldn't you like to know how they will accomplish such a feat, given that each of their proposals - Bush with his tax cuts and Kerry with his spending plans - would cost $1.3 trillion over 10 years?

Me too. But did we get that discussion, that give and take that would allow voters to get into the meat of the thing?

No, we got the same old sound bites. Instead of a debate, we got a stage play: Phantom of the Public Interest.

I wanted to hear Kerry explain how he can deliver on his promises. I wanted to hear Bush explain why we should give his policies four more years. But the rules they set up ensured that they didn't have to give us real answers.

I can only conclude they don't want to answer because the solutions involve pain - so poisonous in an election year - as well as promises. Or maybe it's because the public prefers one-liners to real answers.

Or maybe they just don't have answers.