NEW ORLEANS, NOV. 2 -- Six Democratic presidential candidates who gathered here tonight to debate domestic programs for the poor and middle class sparred sporadically over how to pay for them -- and over little else.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) blasted as "hokum" Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' claim that $35 billion in new revenues could be raised each year by improved enforcement of existing tax laws, and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt accused his rivals of "flimflam" for refusing to take the tax issue head-on.
But the fiscal debate never got beyond a skirmish as the two moderators for the Democratic Leadership Council kept forcing the contestants to stick to the arena of social policy -- where they found little to argue about.
"It was a non-event," said Paul Maslin, pollster for Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), reflecting on the ships-passing-in-the-night quality of the televised encounter.
Gephart was the most frustrated would-be debater. He tried repeatedly to engage the others in a discussion of trade policy, touting himself as the author of a controversial amendment that would empower the president to penalize a country that does not reduce its trade surplus by a prescribed percentage in a prescribed time.
"If standing up for American workers and insisting on prying open foreign markets is protectionist," Gephardt said, "then I want to be a protectionist."
His advisers said Gephardt wanted to make it clear that he wasn't backing off from his tough trade stand in the wake of the stock market plunge and subsequent warnings from Republicans and Democrats that protectionist legislation now might help lead the world into a recession. But the others chose mainly to ignore the trade argument.
It was left to former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb -- Gephardt's successor as chairman of the DLC, a group of centrist Democrats -- to take him on afterward.
"Anything that looks to bilateral trade imbalances is fatally flawed," Robb said.
One issue on which there was broad agreement was raising the minimum wage. All of the candidates said they would support legislation lifting the minimum pay scale from $3.35 an hour to either $4.25 or $4.50 an hour. The increase was supported as a mechanism to lift a number of the working poor out of poverty.
Only Simon called for a major expansion of the federal government, repeating his call for a massive federal jobs program. In most other cases, the candidates were either vague in their proposals or made suggestions that would cost the government little in direct payments.
Dukakis said private businesses should be required by law to give employes health insurance, a step supported by a number of his competitors. Such a mandatory program would cost the government little if any money, but would provoke opposition from business.
The Dukakis plan, which he has proposed in Massachusetts, would also require payment of supplementary premiums by businesses to cover persons temporarily out of work who are not covered by health plans. Although rejected by the Massachusetts legislature, the plan has been revived.
Gephardt said that the working poor should be given a tax credit that they could use to buy health insurance. The Gephardt proposal was immediately attacked by Dukakis, who said, "These people don't have enough to eat . . . let alone enough to go out and buy a health plan."
Without providing specifics, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) said the federal government should establish a principle of "social obligation" in the provision of services. Under this principle, recipients of welfare and other benefits would have to accept work or work training, if available, and take basic education courses, if recipients were illiterate.
Specifics were markedly absent from the debate.
Jesse L. Jackson set out his credentials at the outset: "Of the people on this stage, I was the poorest the longest and the most recently," he said, noting that he was "born to a teen-age mother who was born to a teen-age mother." He spoke of the need for an activist government, but also of the need for familial love and strong family values.