WAG THE DOG

SYNOPSIS: Gore's numbers are an exaggeration. Bush's numbers are a lie.

George W. Bush is still using the four-dollar routine in his public appearances the one where he pulls out four dollar bills to represent the projected budget surplus, then says that he plans to use only one of those bills, one-quarter of the surplus, for tax cuts. Anyone who has looked at his campaign's own numbers (or who read this column a week and a half ago) knows that this isn't right that the tax cut would actually use up more than a third of the surplus. But most commentators seem to think that this is a minor detail a quarter, a third, what's the difference? (About $450 billion, but who's counting?)

Meanwhile, Al Gore got a pummeling from some commentators and, of course, Mr. Bush's campaign over the dog story, in which he told an anecdote about an expensive human drug that costs only one-third as much if prescribed by a vet. It turns out that he was looking at wholesale prices; when you look at retail prices the number is more than one-third, though less than one-half. My God! Does this man have the integrity to be president?

Although both cases involve misstated fractions, they are very different in other ways. Mr. Gore's numbers were off, but the thrust of his story that drug companies engage in price discrimination, charging what the traffic will bear is true. On the other hand, the intended moral of Mr. Bush's story that the budget will easily accommodate his tax cut, that it leaves plenty of money with which to secure the future of retirees, rebuild the military, and all that isn't at all true.

Just to revisit the arithmetic one more time: Let one dollar bill represent $100 billion of projected surplus. If we put Social Security and Medicare in "lock boxes," the remaining surplus amounts to $18 of which $16 will be used up by Mr. Bush's tax cut. And Mr. Bush has promised new spending that is more than twice, though less than three times hey, I don't want to be inaccurate! as much as the money he actually has left.

So Mr. Gore got the details wrong but represented the basic situation correctly; Mr. Bush also got the details wrong but fundamentally misrepresented the situation. And that's not the only difference. Mr. Gore told his story once, and didn't repeat it after the details were questioned. Mr. Bush continues to tell his story even though it is demonstrably inconsistent with the numbers his own campaign has put out.

It's true that Mr. Gore has an occasional habit odd in someone who is so obsessed with detail of making the story he is telling a bit better than it deserves to be. And public figures are, and should be, held to a higher standard on such matters than ordinary raconteurs. But Mr. Gore's occasional overstatements, while embarrassing, don't come close to those of many other politicians. Remember Ronald Reagan's tale of the welfare queen driving her welfare Cadillac a fantasy that was not only untrue but mean- spirited too.

So why did Mr. Bush's campaign believe that the dog story offered an opportunity to challenge Mr. Gore's integrity and that Mr. Bush's own problems with fractions would not raise questions about his own truthfulness?

The answer, I suspect, is that political strategists believe that voters don't pay attention to big numbers, numbers that are outside their ordinary experience. And maybe they're right. If a candidate were to declare that gasoline costs $1 a gallon when everyone knows that it costs at least $1.60, he would be shouted off the stage. But when Mr. Bush declares (as he often does on the stump) that his tax cut will cost $1 trillion, when his own budget numbers indicate that the right number is roughly $1.6 trillion, everyone shrugs.

This tendency to focus on the small, supposedly revealing story rather than the big picture may be ingrained in human nature. But voters and the press ought to fight this tendency if it means that minor slips are punished and major fibs are ignored. If this campaign is about "real policies for real people," then we should demand that the candidates get the really important numbers right. Originally published in The New York Times, 9.24.00