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The issues Bush and Kerry won't debate

October 1, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

THEY CALL this a debate? Last week, Republican and Democratic powerbrokers were busy putting the finishing touches on a 32-page agreement about the debate "showdowns" between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

The three presidential and one vice presidential debates beginning September 30 will be thoroughly stage-managed affairs, with every detail set in stone, from the way warning lights will work if either candidate runs over time, to the height specifications for podiums (50 inches from the stage floor to the outside top of the podium, in case anyone was wondering).

"Spontaneity is in short supply in modern presidential politics," commented the New York Times. "But during the debates, it will have been all but stamped out by the agreement." Candidates aren't allowed to move from the podium during two of the three debates, and they can't ask each other direct questions. The moderators are banned from asking follow-up questions when they hear an answer that is full of hot air.

Even the audience is stacked. Bush was reportedly so concerned about taking questions from demanding voters in the October 8 "town hall"-style debate that the final deal specifies the entire audience will be made up of "soft" Bush and Kerry supporters.

Yet the real issues that millions of people care about in the U.S.--from the disastrous war and occupation of Iraq, to the sputtering economy, to the health care crisis and beyond--are as urgent as they ever have been. Instead of a serious discussion, we'll get prefabricated, focus-group-tested sound bites that leave the most important questions unanswered.

NICOLE COLSON looks at a few of the issues that won't be talked about in the debates--just as they've been ignored throughout Election 2004.

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Bankruptcy "reform"
Americans are drowning in debt. Not including mortgages and student loans, people in the U.S. owed nearly $2 trillion--mainly in credit card and car loan debts--as of October 2003. Every 15 seconds, a family in the U.S. files for bankruptcy--a reflection of the staggering increase in housing and health care costs that ordinary Americans have had to shoulder over the past 30 years, while wages and benefits have remained stagnant.

And if the politicians of both parties get their way, ordinary Americans will be stuck with their debts forever. For years, the credit card and banking industry has been pushing for a bankruptcy "reform" bill that would make it much harder for working families to get relief from their debts through declaring bankruptcy.

Lawmakers from both parties are on board with the legislation. The only thing stopping its passage right now is the opposition of Republicans to one provision--which would prevent anti-abortion fanatics convicted of committing violent crimes outside abortion clinics from using bankruptcy to avoid fines.

Why are the politicians behind bankruptcy "reform"? That's easy--there's big bucks to be pocketed from the banking industry if they go along.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, George W. Bush has received more than $600,000 from credit card giant MBNA during his career. John Kerry has received more than $225,000 from Citigroup, and more than $200,000 from Fleet Boston Financial Corp.

The failure of welfare "reform"
According to the politicians, women like Tina Taylor were an advertisement for "welfare reform." Taylor, a single mother, spent six years on public assistance. After Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 that tore up the federal welfare system, she was forced off the rolls.

Luckily, she was able to find a job that paid $400 a week--not a lot, but enough to clothe and feed her two children, and even rent a duplex. But last year, Taylor lost her job. Now, she's back in poverty, scraping by on $217 a month in child support and $274 in food stamps.

She wanted to apply for welfare, but was given the impression that the state would take away her child-support payments if she did. Instead, for several months, she and her youngest child were left homeless, "bouncing around from couch to couch at friends' homes and trying in vain to make their food stamps stretch to the end of each month," according to the Washington Post.

This is the real story of welfare "deform." Study after study shows that while states have continued to slash the welfare rolls, many former recipients have been forced into more desperate circumstances--homelessness, increased hunger, making do with even less.

Nationally, more than 40 percent of former welfare recipients aren't working. And most of the "lucky" ones with jobs earn between $6 and $8 an hour--not enough to support a family on.

Today, George W. Bush is pushing for even more cuts. His plan would make welfare recipients work even more hours a week to qualify for benefits, would fund a sick program encouraging poor women to get married, and would cut more from already underfunded child care programs.

But John Kerry isn't offering an alternative. "When my party was divided over welfare, I voted to pass a landmark welfare reform law with tough work requirements and time limits," he bragged recently.

Requirements that are responsible for forcing Tina Taylor and her kids into poverty and homelessness. "I worked my way out of poverty," Taylor told the Washington Post. "Now I'm all the way at the bottom again."

Soldiers speak out
George Bush says that we have to stay the course in Iraq. John Kerry says that it would be wrong to "cut and run." Whoever is in the White House in January, they will ignore the growing outcry against the war among those who are being sent to fight and die in Iraq.

Soldiers like conscientious objector Camilo Mejia--currently serving one year of hard labor for refusing to fight this unjust war. Soldiers like Mike Hoffman--who served in Iraq and recently helped form Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group "committed to saving lives and ending the violence in Iraq by an immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces."

Soldiers like the 40,000 troops forced by the government's "stop-loss" order to serve beyond the expiration of their enlistment terms since the war began. That includes "John Doe," an anonymous soldier who was sent to Iraq in January 2003--and put under stop-loss a month later, delaying his discharge that had been scheduled in September last year.

After returning from Iraq in October and being discharged in December, he enlisted in the National Guard for a year after being told that his unit had recently been in Iraq and was unlikely to be sent again. Then, in July, he was informed that the unit was heading back--and that he was a victim of stop-loss again, with his enlistment extended another two years.

Still under treatment for stress disorder from his first tour in Iraq, Doe has decided to fight--and lawyers from the Military Law Task Force and National Lawyers Guild are suing to win his release from the military.

Pensions in crisis
Steelworkers. Airline workers. Enron and WorldCom employees. Corporate greed has devoured the hard-earned pensions of these and other workers at a faster and faster pace over the past few years.

What used to be a given in a good job--a secure pension to retire on--has grown increasingly rare. Today, U.S. companies with traditional, or "defined-benefit," pension plans, are underfunded by $350 billion. That's because during the Wall Street "boom" of the 1990s, many companies simply counted their pension funds as profit--until the stock market bubble burst.

Earlier this year, Congress passed a law to help bail out the airline industry's pension funds, but United still wants to dump the pensions of 120,000 retirees--for a savings of $8.3 billion. The federal Pensions Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) would make up some of the difference, but that amount is capped. In other words, United retirees would see their pensions cut by as much as 50 percent.

Gary Gerdman knows what that's like. Gerdman was a machinist for 32 years at Outboard Marine Corp., retiring eight months before the company filed for bankruptcy in 2000.

While the PBGC took up some of the slack, in the end, his pension was cut by about $700 a month. "You plan all your life, and you save accordingly and spend accordingly, and then you take a hit, and you can't recoup it anymore," the 54-year-old Gerdman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

More than half of Gerdman's remaining pension each month goes to pay for health insurance--to replace the coverage he lost when Outboard Marine went out of business. Meanwhile, the PBGC itself is in the red--paying out $3 billion in benefits with only $1 billion in premiums. That means more cuts in pensions down the road.

"This hits at the core of the American dream, the accumulated credit you get when you put your sweat and your blood into your job for 30 to 40 years, and then you don't have anything in that pot at the end of the rainbow," says Jeff Hynes, a Milwaukee attorney and co-chair of the Wisconsin Employment Lawyers Association.

The Feds' witch-hunt of Muslims
Souleiman Ghali, the president of the Islamic Society of San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle in late June that George Bush shouldn't expect many votes from the Arab and Muslim community this year. "People in our mosque voted overwhelmingly for Bush [in 2000]," Ghali said. "I don't know anyone who is voting for him this time."

Why should they? Since September 11, the Bush administration has witch-hunted Arabs and Muslims as part of the "war on terror." According to a recent report from Amnesty International, 14,000 out of 83,000 men who complied with "voluntary" registrations as part of the war on terror ended up being deported--the vast majority for minor immigration violations.

The report detailed horrific incidents of racism directed at Arabs and Muslims after September 11, including a Muslim student in Texas, who was pulled over while driving and asked if he was carrying any "dead bodies or bombs," and an 8-year-old Muslim boy from Tulsa, Okla., who was searched by airport officials after he became separated from his family at an airport.

But none of this has stopped the Kerry campaign from saying that "[W]e should preserve over 95 percent of the [USA PATRIOT] Act and make improvements on the rest to strengthen the war on terrorism." That spells more racial profiling and harassment.

Criminal injustice
No one can have any doubt that George W. Bush--the "Texacutioner" who in his brief time as governor of Texas signed off on about one-fifth of all executions carried out in the U.S. in the last quarter century--has made his "tough-on-crime" image a cornerstone of his political career. But as soon as he began running for president, John Kerry tried to stake out his own "law-and-order" credentials.

"John Kerry has always been tough on crime," boasts his Web site. "As a prosecutor for one of America's largest counties, he prosecuted a murderer, a rapist and a mob boss." Kerry brags that as a senator, he voted for Bill Clinton's crime bill that put 100,000 more cops on the street--and he says that he wants to add more cops today.

This is despite the fact that the U.S. has more than 2 million people behind bars--a higher percentage than any country on earth--many of them for nonviolent drug offenses. One in every eight Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is currently behind bars--an incredible seven times the rate for white men of the same age.

And more than 7,000 people across the U.S. are serving 25-year sentences or longer under "three strikes" laws--for committing three felonies, no matter how minor or nonviolent. People like Rene Landa, who is serving 27 years to life for stealing a spare tire, and David Olivias, who faces 25 years to life for selling a stolen television for $50.

Meanwhile, formerly anti-death penalty candidate Kerry has had an election-year change of heart on the death penalty--saying he now supports it for "terrorists." What neither Kerry nor Bush will talk about are the 115 people exonerated and freed from death row since 1977--not to mention the bias against the poor and the racism present in almost every death penalty case.

The 115th exonerated prisoner, Ryan Matthews, was just 17 when he was put behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Railroaded in a three-day trial by an almost all-white jury, Ryan--who is Black--became was a target of racist authorities in Jefferson Parish.

Pressure from his family and anti-death penalty activists finally cleared Ryan, but in this election year, you won't hear the Republicans or the Democrats mention a case like his. They'd rather let innocent men languish on death row than even raise the idea of changing this sick system.

Let Nader debate

THERE'S ONE major presidential candidate this year who won't be allowed into the debates--Ralph Nader. It turns out that the "non-partisan selection criteria" set up by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to determine who gets to speak are just the opposite--completely partisan.

That's not surprising. The CPD was founded by the two major parties. It has been co-chaired by honchos in the two parties since it was created in 1987, and nine of 11 CPD directors are prominent Republicans and Democrats. The CPD's rules are so burdensome that virtually no presidential candidate--other than the Republican and Democrat, of course--stands a chance of satisfying the requirements.

First, participants in the debates must be on the ballot in states that together have at least 270 electoral votes--the number needed to win the presidency. Despite the fact that the Democratic Party went all out to keep Nader off state ballots across the country, he fulfilled that requirement.

But a more prohibitive rule set up by the commission specifies that participating candidates must score at least 15 percent support in an average of five national polls by the time of the first debate. This is a recipe for excluding virtually all third-party candidates. So despite the fact that he won 2.7 million votes in 2000, and that millions of people are considering a vote for him again according to the polls, Nader looks likely to be locked out of the debates again.

The CPD's biased rules fly in the face of public sentiment. According to a September Zogby poll, 57 percent of likely voters believe that Nader should be allowed to participate in the debates. Instead of a real debate, we'll be subjected to two pro-war, pro-occupation, pro-corporate millionaires talking about how they disagree "on the issues."

"This commission is a political organization designed to support the two major parties and shut out third-party and independent candidates," Nader said in a recent written statement. "We need to reinvigorate our democracy by having real debates--not joint press conferences designed to limit the voices heard by voters."

To protest the decision to ban Nader from the debates, call the Commission on Presidential Debates at 202-872-1020.

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