In Era of Sound Bites, Voters Reach for Their Truth Meters

A guide to sifting rhetoric from reality in campaign's final days

Confused yet?

Not sure whether President Clinton raised or cut your taxes in 1993? Uncertain if Bob Dole's economic plan will make the economy grow faster or the deficit deeper?

If so, it's probably because you've been paying attention. Partial information is a trademark of modern presidential campaigns. Candidates have bland, broad messages they want to convey - but lack of detail in their ads and speeches may leave voters pondering the real truth of their assertions.

Yet it's in the specifics that key differences between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole lie. Merely calling one candidate "liberal" or saying another has "old ideas" is the political equivalent of a food fight - entertaining perhaps but not always enlightening.

What follows is a guide to some of the main issues in campaign '96 - how the candidates frame them and what their records reveal. It is intended to answer some of the questions voters may still have in the final days of the election.

Affirmative Action: Dole removed all ambiguity from his position on the issue last week when he endorsed the California Civil Rights Initiative, a measure that essentially would ban racial preferences in the state. The proposed law, the most extensive overhaul of affirmative action in the nation, has become a benchmark by which to measure a politician's opposition to a program originally meant to level the playing field for disadvantaged Americans.

Clinton last year proposed a policy of "mend it, don't end it" - ending racial quotas in hiring but still supporting affirmative action as a means of ensuring equal opportunity in such areas as college applications and job interviewing.

Crime: Dole has attempted to turn public opinion on recent statistics showing a sharp rise in drug use among teenagers. He blames the Clinton administration for scaling back antidrug efforts over the past four years.

While the administration did, in fact, rein in its war on drugs until recently, statistics show that teenage drug use began to rise in 1992, before Clinton took office.

As for the broader picture, the Justice Department reported in September that violent crime dropped to 9.9 million "incidents" in 1995 from 10.9 million in 1985.

That decline, however, masks a sharp increase in youth crime. The number of juvenile murder convictions rose 82 percent from 1984 to 1994, and the rate of murders committed by juveniles rose 172 percent.

Clinton promised 100,000 new police nationwide in his 1993 crime bill, but has fallen far short of that goal to date. To combat youth crime and drug use, he proposes several measures, including requiring drug testing for teenagers applying for a driver's license; providing funding for state and local juvenile drug courts for nonviolent offenders; and boosting mandatory sentences for dealers who sell drugs to minors.

Dole, meanwhile, has waffled on the assault-weapons ban throughout the campaign, first promising to overturn it, then changing his mind. He now favors a nationwide data base designed to bar any gun purchase by anyone convicted of domestic violence.

Dole also would lower the death penalty age from 18 to 16 and provide $100 million to hire federal prosecutors to pursue violent youth gangs. In addition, he would employ military reserve units to patrol the southern border against drugs.

Medicare: Perhaps no issue has been the subject of more number-flinging than this program to provide health care to the elderly. The Republican Congress, of which Dole was a part, proposed slowing funding to the program by as much as $270 billion over seven years to keep it solvent.

Democrats charged they were cutting it by as much to fund tax cuts. Before the debate died in the 104th Congress, Republicans were suggesting slowing the program's growth by $158 billion, Democrats by $116 billion.

Neither campaign has offered concrete proposals for fixing the entitlement, but the debate is not going to go away.

Here are some numbers to keep in mind: The Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, which pays mostly for in-patient care, began in 1995 to pay out more in benefits than it takes in each year. The fund is expected to reach insolvency by 2001, if not sooner, unless changes are made. Some 27 million people now receive Medicare benefits.

Tax Cuts: Did Clinton raise taxes in 1993? Yes, but only on certain individuals.

The 1993 package increased income taxes and the Medicare payroll rate on the highest 2 percent of wage earners. It also raised the taxable portion of Social Security benefits for the 13 percent of recipients above the middle-income level.

Clinton, too, imposed a higher corporate income tax rate, and added 4.3-cents per gallon in federal gas taxes.

Administration officials argue the "stimulus" package helped dramatically boost government revenues and thus reduce the deficit. Clinton is pitching targeted tax cuts in this election year, mainly to help education.

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