Arlington Heights, Ill.--Speaking inside a middle-school gymnasium in the Chicago suburbs today, George Bush tried out what seemed a clever new way to contrast his proposal for "tax relief" with Al Gore's. The distinction collapsed, however, under tough questioning from a girl in the eighth grade.
Bush's familiar line is that whereas Gore wants to give tax relief only to the "right people," the governor would give tax relief to everyone. That was his message again at Thomas Middle School, where he was accompanied by the barnstorming governors of Connecticut, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Bush's new rhetorical gimmick was to run through the "ifs" in Gore's proposal. "How many of you own hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles?" he asked the audience. The question was greeted by peals of laughter. "If you look under there, you'll see that's one of the criteria necessary to receive tax relief," Bush continued. "So when he talks about targeted tax relief, that's pretty darn targeted."
Then Bush tried a few more. "How many of you own a rooftop photo-voltaic system?" Again, laughter. "If you had one, you'd get tax relief." "How many of you have three or more children and claim the Earned Income Credit?" Silence. And so on. Bush explained that only people in such obscure categories would qualify for tax breaks under Gore's plan.
Then Bush asked, "How many of you all pay federal income taxes?" The response to this question was also muted, possibly because the audience didn't want to applaud for the income tax or possibly because a majority of those in the room were 11, 12, and 13. "You get tax relief," Bush said. The response had the bleachers vibrating.
But as Michael Kinsley pointed in a recent column, the claim that Bush eschews tax credits and targeted preferences is largely mythological. He may not use the tax code for social policy purposes as extensively as Gore wants to do, but what he's proposing falls far short of tax reform. This became clear when a group of well-prepared eighth-grade students took turns asking him questions that were generally better than those he faced from Jim Lehrer in the debates.
"Mr. Gore is attempting to make college tuition more affordable for middle-class families," noted an eighth-grader named Courtney. "Do you have any plans to help families in general pay for the high cost of a college education and tuition?"
"I support the credit that's in place right now," Bush said. "What I think we ought to do is a couple of things. I think we ought to expand Education Savings Accounts from $500 to $5,000 per filer per year. Secondly, I think we need to give tax relief to people who pay the bills so that if a family's got a child fixin' to go to college, they can set aside that money in an educational savings accounts on a tax-free basis. Thirdly, I think we ought to make a federal tax exemption on the interest for prepaid tuition plans."
Talk about targeted tax breaks. Do you contribute more than $500 to an Education Savings Account or set aside money in a prepaid tuition plan? Then you get tax relief.
The other questions from the kids were just as articulate and tough. Another girl asked what Bush would do to promote after-school programs. Bush, to his credit, said he didn't think it was the job of the federal government. Then a classmate of hers asked about abortion, prompting one of Bush's nonsense riffs about "children living in the dark dungeons of the Internet."
"Gun control is an important issue in our society today," asked Ryan Conway, another eighth-grader. "As students, we often hear about school shootings, accidental shootings, and guns ending up in the wrong hands. Do you see this as an important issue, and what is your position?"
"I think we need to say loud and clear to people: If you carry a gun illegally, if you sell a gun illegally, if you commit a crime with a gun illegally, there's going to be a certain consequence," Bush replied. But what if you commit a crime with a gun legally? I guess you get tax relief.