Wonk At Work

So far, Al Gore's making the most of accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don't mess with Mr. In-Between, as the old Bing Crosby tune goes.

In a positive tone, Gore talked about paying down the national debt, lengthening the life of Medicare, and helping Americans save for retirement with new investment accounts to which the federal government will contribute some matching funds. The vice president also announced three new "trust funds" for education, medical research and public health, and the environment from money set aside out of the federal budget surplus.

"I want to make this election about the big choices we have to make to secure progress and prosperity for a New American Century!" Gore said in a speech at the New York Historical Society. The address kicked off a three-week "progress and prosperity tour" that will take the vice president to 11 states.

"I am here to give you more good news!" exclaimed the Democratic presidential candidate as he introduced new Treasury Department estimates showing Medicare running a $300 billion federal surplus, up from recent working estimates of about $250 billion.

Gore's theme of the day was identifying with the country's economic gains of the last seven years - and setting priorities which will determine how the surplus is spent in a Gore presidency.

Gore was introduced by former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, who's popular with the investment community and often given a slice of credit for the American economic expansion of the '90's.

Rubin said Gore was "deeply involved in every economic decision we made," including the road to a balanced federal budget. Later, Rubin told reporters that Gore began advocating for fiscal discipline during the 1992 transition.

Debt reduction is the cornerstone of Gore's approach to entitlement reform. Without naming George W. Bush, Gore warned that his opponent's Social Security plan, "could drive our entire budget back into deficit."

Gore outlined his plan to extend Medicare's solvency beyond its current go-bust date of 2025 by placing surplus money from the 2.9 percent Medicare payroll tax into a "lock box", rather than pouring it into the big pot that holds most federal revenues. The idea: Medicare money would then only be used to pay for the program itself and pay off the $3.5 trillion national debt - and not diverted to other spending.

Last year, Social Security was separated into its own "lock box," a politically popular idea with both parties and confounds budget watchdogs like Concord Coalition executive director Bob Bixby.

Lock boxes and "trust funds", he said, are "just procedural devices -rhetorical devices really. They have no economic value whatever. They're just a matter of internal governmental bookkeeping. The economy can swamp the bookkeeping and make [the 'lock box'] meaningless." Putting Medicare "ofbudget," argues Bixby, is "like going on a diet and saying calories eaten at breakfast don't count. Metabolically, they still count."

Gore would also add prescription drug coverage to Medicare at a cost of about $200 billion dollars over the next ten years - money to be drawn from the general federal budget surplus.

The vice president's few criticisms of Bush were muted and strictly substantive. Instead of attack, attack, attack, Gore contrasted his plans for the surplus with his GOP rival's by saying, "I won't be profligate with your money. I won't spend money that we don't yet have on a huge tax cut our economy can't afford, in ways that could end our prosperity."

Upbeat all the way, Gore began his address by quoting the ultimate political optimist, Republican Ronald Reagan. A fair bipartisan trade, perhaps: Bush lately has been taken to quoting Democratic icon John F. Kennedy.