AS EVERYBODY knows, Al Gore has been training for these presidential debates since he was a toddler just starting to deconstruct the Constitution. His parents probably roused him from late-night sleep to perform for party guests. A sleepy-eyed Gore would seek approval from the grownups with his amusing analysis of the U.S. tax code. He was probably 3 years old.
George W. Bush is different. Tuesday night, his mockers expected him to ask, "What's all this fuss about hunger?" They thought he'd need electric cables to jump-start his intellect. He's the frat boy who belatedly decided to get serious with his life, and hopes nobody presses for details about a certain, oh, 30-year gap in his maturity.
Thus did many of us approach the first presidential debate with our preconceptions. Gore's been at this so long that he's over-rehearsed, patronizing and stiff. Bush has been serious for such a brief time that he's still learning the names of all the states. When Gore mentioned foreign leaders, he seemed to be taunting Bush: "Do any of these names sound familiar to you?" When Bush talked in folksy, colloquial English, he might have been asking Gore, "Is this language familiar to you?"
Neither of these fellows stirs the heart. Is Al Gore better prepared for the job? Of course. Is George W. Bush a more likeable fellow? Sure. Especially if you live in a rich neighborhood. Gore kept hammering at the Bush tax plan, and Bush's tartest response was to accuse Gore of "fuzzy math," which is not the same as an answer.
"The priorities are just very different," Gore said. "For every new dollar that I propose for spending on health care, Governor Bush spends $3 for a tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent. For every dollar that I propose to spend on education, he spends $5 on a tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent."
Bush's response? "I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, he invented the calculator." A few slight problems with this: Gore never claimed to "invent" the Internet. Nor did Bush ever, despite repeated mention of the big tax cut for the richest people in the country, deny it or defend it.
What would such a tax cut mean? The New York Times had accountants break down the figures by income brackets. Here are some: A married man making $450,000 a year would get a $12,259 tax break with Bush. With Gore, no tax break for that man. A working couple with two children (one in college) making $78,000 would get $2,047 under a Bush tax cut, and $3,280 with Gore. A single parent with two children, making $29,000 a year, would get a $163 tax cut with Bush, and $1,767 with Gore.
As we live in a time of historic disparity between rich and poor, we might have expected even more debate about this - but didn't get it. Gore doesn't want to talk about "poor people," because expressing concern for the "poor" is considered a code word. It lets people brand you a liberal, a word that is tossed about the way Joe McCarthy used to toss around "communist." It's lost all specific meaning, but it's intended as a demonizing brand name. And Bush won't mention the poor because his tax breaks for the rich make him look insensitive.
So neither of these guys would approach a subject such as the thing now in the news around here: the plan to move poor people into middle-class neighborhoods, and those 800 people from Northeast Baltimore who showed up Tuesday night, forgoing all glimpses of the televised presidential debate, to tell Mayor Martin O'Malley they don't like what's happening. O'Malley agreed with them.
Who wouldn't? We've learned to fear the poor. Once, they were seen as lovable folks out of Frank Capra movies; now, they're seen as criminals. Both images suffer from clichM-i - but here's another: that anyone wishing to keep poor (generally black) people away must be racist.
The fact is, Northeast Baltimore has been integrated for years.
During the City Hall years of Kurt L. Schmoke, the housing chief Daniel Henson flooded the Patterson Park area with hundreds of Section 8 families - and a working-class neighborhood that had been integrated, and working things out, was unfortunately hit by dreadful drug trafficking, destruction of property and crime.
Northeast Baltimore looks at this and panics - and who wouldn't? At Tuesday's meeting at Hamilton Middle School, some people asked why poor people aren't sent to rich neighborhoods. Such remarks drew considerable cheering.
The problem with the great American economy is that the poor have been left behind and therefore have created their own, often dangerous, economy. Meanwhile, the rich have learned to insulate themselves from such problems. And now, having such a preponderance of money, they anticipate another big tax break with this plan from George W. Bush.
It isn't the rich who get hit with poor people moving in - it's the middle class, the working class, black and white. The answer isn't to throw more problems their way. It's to make the economy more equitable, and let the poor have enough stake in it that they don't have to move into somebody else's neighborhood - because they're making their own neighborhood flourish.
And maybe a tax plan that looks out for them as much as it helps the rich might be a decent start.