WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 (JTA) – Foreign policy took a back seat to domestic issues in the first U.S. presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, with no mention of the violence enveloping Israel and the Palestinians.
The only foreign policy issue addressed at length during Tuesday’s debate was the situation in Yugoslavia, where President Slobodan Milosevic has refused to step down despite his recent defeat at the polls.
Instead, the debate in Boston was dominated by back-and-forths about tax cuts, Social Security and Medicare.
But on some issues being watched closely by the organized Jewish community, such as education and abortion, the exchange highlighted stark differences between the two candidates.
Bush showed his support of the public school system with promises of mandatory testing and accountability measures, but also voiced his support for vouchers, a divisive issue among Jewish groups.
If a public school is failing, Bush said that rather than “continuing to subsidize failure,” federal money should go to parents so they can choose to send their child to a different public, private or parochial school. Bush also said he favored expanding education savings accounts.
Gore, in contrast, made his position against vouchers clear.
“Vouchers take taxpayer money away from public schools and give them to private schools that are not accountable for how the money is used and don’t have to take all applicants,” he said.
Several states have started a variety of voucher programs, some of which are being contested in court.
The Supreme Court has so far refused to hear cases on whether voucher programs violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
On the question of abortion, Bush was asked if he would overturn the Federal Drug Administration’s recent decision to approve the abortion pill RU-486.
He said he did not think the president had the authority to take that action. Bush then made his pro-life stance clear, saying a “noble goal for this country is that every child, born and unborn, ought to be protected in law and welcomed into life.”
Both Bush and Gore said they would ban late-term abortions, though Gore added that he would make exceptions for the health of the mother.
The abortion issue led into a discussion about Supreme Court appointments, several of which are likely to occur under the next administration, and whether those justices would have to agree with the president’s position on abortion.
Bush said he would not use a litmus test on any issue but would choose strict constructionists who would “interpret the Constitution and will not use the bench to write social policy.”
Gore accused Bush of using code words, and said no one should mistake Bush’s intent of appointing judges who would overturn the landmark case legalizing abortion, Roe vs. Wade.
The vice president said he also would not use a litmus test in his appointments, but would select people with a philosophy that would make it likely they would uphold a woman’s right to choose.
“A lot of young women in this country take this right for granted and it could be lost. This issue is on the ballot, make no mistake about it,” Gore said.