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A Primer for Tonight's First Debate

Economic Policy

Bush and Kerry offer a blizzard of statistics about the economy, many carefully selected to make things look as good or bad as possible.

Bush, for instance, is fond of saying, "We've added 1.7 million jobs since August 2003" -- ignoring the fact that the total job loss since Bush took office is nearly 1 million, making him the first president since Herbert Hoover to have presided over a net loss in jobs.

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Kerry, meanwhile, emphasizes the loss of 2.7 million manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, which overstates the total job loss and ignores the historical trend toward service-oriented jobs.

Bush likes to cite the fact that the current unemployment rate, 5.4 percent, is "lower than the average of the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s." Though this is factually correct, comparing a one-month figure with 10-year averages is an apples-and-oranges exercise. The unemployment rate was 4 percent when Bush took office, though it is down from a high of 6.3 percent in June 2003.

Kerry lashes Bush for "settling for jobs that pay us $9,000 less than the jobs that are going overseas" -- an extreme extrapolation of figures contained in a study published by a labor-backed progressive group. Kerry also blames Bush for giving tax preferences to offshore companies, but the provision was enacted long before Bush was elected.

Kerry is on firmer ground when decrying the nation's "shrinking middle class" and the largest budget deficit in history -- though as a percentage of gross domestic product it is second to Ronald Reagan's. The latest U.S. Census Bureau data show median household income was flat or declined during Bush's tenure and the number of Americans living in poverty rose by 4 million, or 14 percent.

One of Bush's most effective lines on the stump is that he is running "against a fellow who's promised over 2.2 trillion new dollars of federal spending so far." The Kerry campaign disputes that estimate -- and Bush's spending proposals top $3 trillion, according to administration figures.

Health Policy

The differences between the candidates are especially profound on health policy.

Bush brags frequently about last year's passage of Medicare prescription drug coverage. "I believe we have a moral obligation to provide our seniors with good health care," he says on the trail. "We've strengthened Medicare, and we're not turning back."

But the estimated cost has risen from $400 billion over the next 10 years to $576 billion; independent investigators have excoriated administration officials for concealing the true costs. Retirees complain that coverage does not begin until 2006 and that the interim drug discount cards are confusing. Bush says 4 million seniors have signed up for the cards -- but nearly 3 million were enrolled automatically, and the number enrolled is 3.3 million below the administration's target.

When Bush says he "strengthened" Medicare, he is referring largely to new preventive services, such as a "welcome to Medicare" physical for every 65-year-old. Medicare's independent trustees, however, report that the law severely weakened the program's fiscal stability.

Kerry taps into seniors' frustration by touting his opposition to the bill, though he missed the vote on final passage. His "no" vote would not have changed the outcome, however, and he was on the Senate floor for a crucial procedural vote that would have killed the legislation. He describes the law as a "$139 billion payoff" to drug companies. The charge is based on a Boston University study that some experts say undercounts the potential savings that come with Bush's new cost controls.

Each man blames the other for the recently announced 17 percent jump in 2005 premiums -- and neither is being fair. When Bush accuses Kerry of voting five times to raise premiums, he's counting votes on spending bills that, among other things, retained a formula setting premiums at one-quarter the total cost. In all but one instance, the votes were bipartisan.

Similarly, Bush cannot be blamed for the formula or rising health costs overall. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency, estimated that 9.9 percent of the increase was due to changes in the law Bush signed, namely higher payments to physicians and managed care companies.

Bush raises the specter of Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed health care reform with comments that Kerry would "nationalize" health care. Bush says Kerry has crafted a plan "that is massive, it is complicated, it is a blueprint to have the government control your health care," and he mocks his rival for plans to expand Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor and disabled.

While Kerry aims to spend a good deal of federal money ($653 billion to $1.5 trillion over 10 years) to extend coverage to about 27 million of the 45 million uninsured Americans, he would not "nationalize" health care. Kerry would build on the existing health system, expanding some government programs and broadening access to private plans.

Bush would spend considerably less ($93 billion to $130 billion over a decade) to cover 2 million to 10 million uninsured Americans. And his approach, many experts say, would mean much more upheaval in the current system, moving away from employer-based insurance to individual coverage.

Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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