October 20, 2000


My Presidential Debate

By James E. Garcia

If only I could have been there.

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush met Tuesday night for the third and final presidential debate. Jim Lehrer was the moderator. But I couldn't help imagining how the evening might have gone if a Latino, such as myself, had been the one dissecting the questions and challenging their answers.

This is my imaginary debate.

On health care, you, Mr. Gore, said you wanted to pass a meaningful patients bill of rights. While, you, Mr. Bush, support a scaled down version backed by the Republican-controlled Congress and favored by the insurance industry.

To be honest with you, I'd like to have a patient's bill of rights. But I'm more worried about the 10 million or so Latinos in this country who don't have any health insurance at all. That's about 25 percent of everyone in the United States without health insurance, even though our community is only 11 percent of the population. And our children make up an even larger share of the uninsured when compared to non-Hispanics. Who's going to help them?

Mr. Gore, you said you want to provide affordable health care coverage to every child in America within four years. That's a start. But my first impulse tells me that unless the Democrats win not only the presidency but both the House and the Senate, that Republicans won't let it happen. Still, it's a good idea. And I give you credit for trying. I personally think it is inhumane to allow any child to go without health insurance, particularly in an era of record budget surpluses.

I agree with Mr. Bush that there shouldn't be a federal run health care program for every American in the nation. But I do think that there should be a federal health care program for every American in the country who cannot afford to pay for health care.

Like millions of other Latinos in this country, I know what it is like to do without health insurance. If you are healthy, you live in fear of getting sick. If you're sick, you find yourself depending on either health care clinics that are usually under-funded and provide minimal services, or you end up using the emergency room. Most poor people don't know or care that emergency room medical treatment is the most expensive health care in our system. But we know that. And the two of you know that. So allowing this system to continue is not only a waste of money, but it puts vast numbers of Americans in real danger, since they're forced to do without preventive health care in their lives. And a vastly disproportionate percentage of those Americans are Latinos.

As for senior citizens and prescription drugs, a member of my own family is now having to go from living below the poverty line to utter destitution. My stepmother has cancer. She is able to undergo chemotherapy because she has Medicare. But she cannot afford to buy the drugs she needs to alleviate the pain caused by that treatment because Medicare doesn't include a prescription drug benefit.

Mr. Bush wants to subsidize private insurance companies and encourage them to provide prescription drug benefits. Even if she could afford to purchase medical insurance, why should she trust the same insurance companies who run the same HMOs that so many Americans have grown to distrust to provide the drugs my stepmother needs? In good conscience, I cannot.

Mr. Bush says seniors should have the same choices members of Congress have. They can pick and choose from several health care plans. Members of Congress, Mr. Bush, earn more than $100,000 each. Lobbyists buy their lunch and cover their travel expenses. How many seniors are in a position to afford to pick and choose their health care plans? And what about the Latino elderly, especially low-income Latinos, like my stepmother, who must choose between paying the electric bill or paying for a prescription that cost upwards of $100 for only 20 pills?

Mr. Gore says he wants to expand an existing government health care plan to help people like my stepmother, as opposed to Mr. Bush who says he wants to encourage private insurance companies to take on that responsibility. In the end, I don't think the insurance lobby will let it happen or be inspired by such encouragement, Mr. Bush. And if Mr. Gore is to succeed, I think he'll have to exhibit far greater leadership skills than Mr. Clinton has in the last eight years, especially if the Republicans keep control of Congress.

On education, a woman in the audience Tuesday night asked about holding parents accountable for their children's performance in school.

Both of you have said you support mandatory testing of public school students to determine whether they're learning what they need to know to succeed. I think you both mean well, but I think the evidence shows that both of you are wrong on this count. Yes, test my child in history, science, reading, writing and math. But allow that testing to be part of an academic program that is shaped and developed by educators, not bureaucrats.

In Texas and elsewhere, state education agencies are creating one-size-fits-all tests for students without regard for the individuality of those students, particular schools or even communities. Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore say they believe in local control when it comes to education. State mandated standardized tests are the single worse example of non-local control. You should train teachers, pay them well, then let them do their job. Don't try to do their jobs for them.

It is a fact that some of the best teachers in the industry are leaving the profession because they are not being allowed to do what they were trained to do. That's happening in Texas. Instead of treating children as individuals, they are now required by school administrators and the state to treat children as statistics. If standardized tests scores aren't up, they're out of a job.

Mr. Gore says he wants the federal government to help pay for hiring 100,000 new teachers nationwide. And he wants to provide school districts with money to pay for new buildings. That's a start. Providing tax credits for middle-class families to help send their kids to college is a good start, as well. But there are many in America, and Latino families are a large part of that group, who do not earn enough to take advantage of those tax credits. They're too busy putting food on the table. It is harder today to get Pell Grants and low-cost student loans. The cost of a college education is skyrocketing.

Whoever is elected needs to convince Congress to set aside more funding for that kind of assistance if we expect to educate the young Latinos and Latinas who'll one day be an increasingly substantial segment of our nation's work force. Public universities like public schools should be free. In many school systems across the country, Latino children are now the majority in the student population. Yet 40 percent or more of our children never graduate from high school. This trend has to be reversed.

Again and again throughout his campaign, Mr. Bush has said he wants to end the "bigotry of low expectations." It's a colorful phrase, and I think that Mr. Bush believes it when he says it. But one of the ways he wants to do it is by penalizing poor performing schools — which are often schools with large minority populations — by cutting off one of their only sources of federal education funding. That money, says Bush, would be offered to parents who want to send their children to another school, such as a private school. In most cases, the vouchers given to parents would be about $1,500. First, how would these children be chosen? And if they are the children from the poorest families, how far will $1,500 go toward financing a quality private school education?

And why not just call it a voucher, Mr. Bush? That is what it is.

I am not opposed to vouchers. If private contributors want to give money to the poor to have their children attend private schools, that's fine. And I would never blame the families of those children for taking the money. But I am opposed to using federal revenue to finance private schools. Why? Because private schools can exclude anyone they want. They do not have to provide facilities for the handicapped, for instance. And if a private school administrator does not want his school to have too many Latino children, there's almost nothing the government can do about it. There is a reason why the best private schools in America are not located in minority neighborhoods.

Now, foreign policy. Latinos care about the Middle East and should. But also we care very much about our nation's foreign policy toward Latin America. Nearly 40 percent of Latinos living in the United States are foreign born. For those of born here, most of us have family ties abroad. Most of the new immigrants to America are coming from Mexico and Central and South America.

Economic and social stability are fragile commodities in Latin America. Most Latin American nations are new to the idea of democratic and representative government. In wasn't so long ago that almost every nation in Central America was engulfed in civil war. Colombia is in crisis. Just this year Mexico held what many regard as its first free and fair election in history. At the same time, the region's economies have not grown as fast as their populations.

The single most pressing economic issue of our time will involve the management and utilization of the hemisphere's exploding labor force. Simply put, Mexico and the rest of Latin America have too many workers. We don't have enough. The trouble is our need for highly-skilled labor is growing, while Latin America's ability to train its workers for high-tech jobs has stagnated.

The trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, known as NAFTA, did not address the labor question. Our immigration policy does not adequately address the labor question. As Mexico's President-elect Vicente Fox has pointed out, however, it is an issue we must address if we ever expect to equalize the hemisphere's economic striking disparities.

Finally, if there was a defining moment in Tuesday night's debate that told me who Americans should vote for. It was in Mr. Bush's response to a question asked about his stance on affirmative action.

Mr. Bush opposes affirmative action, but he has never been willing to say so. His pat response has been "I don't like quotas. Quotas tend to pit one group of people against another." In Mr. Bush's view, affirmative action as it is implemented today is the equivalent of a quota program. It is not. For the record, Mr. Bush says he supports diversity, but 80 percent of his appointees since taking office have been white.

Mr. Gore is right. For Mr. Bush to suggest that affirmative action is no different than a quota is wrong. The Supreme Court has ruled that quotas are illegal.

Mr. Bush would have us believe that discrimination is no longer a problem. For nearly 200 years of our nation's history, it was legal to discriminate against women and people of color. Barely a decade ago we made it illegal to discriminate against the handicapped. It is still legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians. And despite the existence of civil rights legislation, people are still victims of racial profiling, redlining and hate crimes.

If Mr. Bush says he is colorblind, then I can only take him at his word and give him the benefit of the doubt. But Mr. Bush knows that the world is not colorblind. He knows that discrimination still is with us.

When Mr. Bush compares affirmative action to quota-inspired programs the implication is clear: He believes that affirmative action is discriminatory because it provides what he regards as preferential treatment for women and minorities.

If this is what Mr. Bush believes, then I think the Latino community deserves to know that. If there are Latinos who agree with Mr. Bush on this point, and there are, then they should vote for him. But Latinos who understand and appreciate the value of a legally implemented affirmative action policy, whether it applies to hiring or university admissions, deserve a straight answer from Mr. Bush on the matter. He refused to answer the question.

Mr. Gore gave us a straight answer. He said, "Affirmative action means that you take extra steps to acknowledge the history of discrimination and injustice and prejudice, and bring all people into the American dream because it helps everybody, not just those who are directly benefited."

Mr. Gore's comments on this showed he has the depth and vision to lead America.

The debates, according to Mr. Bush, have been an opportunity for Americans to take a "measure of the man." He is right. In the end, Mr. Bush simply didn't measure up.

Thank you for listening.

James Garcia is editor of Politico Magazine.

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