Democratic presidential candidates debating Saturday in Phoenix blasted President Bush as out of touch with working Americans and vowed to repeal his $330 billion tax cut.
The six candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination who attended a National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials forum also said they would loosen immigration laws and pump more federal money into such areas as education and health care.
The candidates did little to separate themselves from each other, but rather took turns slamming the current administration. All six said they would scrap the tax cuts passed by Congress, almost entirely with Republican votes, and signed by Bush.
Those tax cuts benefit the wealthy and were paid for by slashing federal aid to schools, local communities and health care, they said.
"The president has said he wants to have a debate about values," said S en. John Edwards, D-N.C. "His values are not the values of the American people. George Bush honors and values only wealth. He wants to make sure that those who have it keep it. This is not the America we believe in."
Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont and the Rev. Al Sharpton said the Bush tax cuts have shifted the tax burden onto low- and middleincome families by forcing states, school districts and local governments to raise property and sales taxes.
"You can’t balance the budget by telling poor people to tighten their belts when they are left standing in their underwear," Sharpton said.
Dean and Edwards pitched plans to use federal funds or tax credits to help businesses pay health insurance premiums for their workers.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the government should provide more federal money for health care while ensuring health coverage for every child and every family making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. To cut the cost of private health insurance, Kerry said the federal government should also pay the tab for medical care when the cost of treating a patient exceeds $50,000, thereby taking the most expensive cases out of the insurer’s risk pool.
To spur the economy, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said he would raise the minimum wage and push tax cuts targeted to low- and middleincome families. Sharpton said the federal government should embark on a five-year project to refurbish roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs of the nation to stimulate job creation.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, DOhio, who is among the harshest critics in Congress of the American invasion of Iraq, said he would redirect money from defense to schools.
The Democrats blasted the Bush administration for using national security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as an excuse to clamp down on the borders and engage in racial profiling. They advocated creating a fast-track process in which undocumented immigrants who work in the United States, pay taxes and have no criminal history could get citizenship quicker.
While Bush was the most frequent target for barbs from the Democratic candidates, Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who moderated the debate, said the president remains popular among Hispanics. Hispanics will be a constituency that the Democratic nominee will have to fight for, he said in a news conference before the debate.
"President Bush is popular with Hispanic voters," Richardson said. "That’s the only threat Democrats have, the coattails of President Bush. The Republican Party is doing a lot of media and outreach, but it’s not policy. Their policies basically are not set to the tempo of the Hispanic community. The problem with the Democratic Party is it is taking the Hispanic vote for granted."
Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida did not attend the debate Saturday.