Longtime ideological foes George S. McGovern and Edwin W. Meese battled in Baltimore last night in a substantive but passionless debate over the presidential election.
Before an audience of more than 100 at the University of Baltimore, the two political veterans ticked off reasons to support either Bill Clinton or George Bush.
For Mr. Meese, a former U.S. attorney general and longtime aide to former President Ronald Reagan, the choice is simple.
"George Bush on his worst day, from the point of view of a conservative, will be better than Bill Clinton on his best day," Mr. Meese said.
He predicted Mr. Clinton would raise taxes, stifle economic growth and repeat the failures of the Jimmy Carter administration.
"The first thing I'd like to point out is that Jimmy Carter is not on the ballot this year," Mr. McGovern, 70, countered.
He recalled approvingly that Mr. Clinton was the Texas coordinator in the South Dakota senator's failed presidential campaign in 1972.
"I knew 20 years ago that he was a very talented, capable and promising young man," he said. "We need a change. This Bush administration has not given us any indication after four years that they're on top of the problems this country faces."
After serving 22 years in Congress, Mr. McGovern founded his own political group in 1982 and is a frequent speaker around the nation.
Mr. Meese, 60, left the Reagan Cabinet in 1988 after a grueling ethics probe. He is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank and writes a nationally syndicated column.
Mr. McGovern sharply criticized Presidents Bush and Reagan for helping run up the nation's $4 trillion debt over the last 12 years.
"I'm supposed to be a big free-spending liberal," he said. "I'm appalled at the size of this deficit."
In response, Mr. Meese ridiculed Mr. Clinton's proposal to "invest" in the economy with public works jobs and other government programs.
Government doesn't have money to invest," he said. "It only takes money from taxpayers . . . and connects it into its particular spending programs."
A Clinton tax increase would stifle the economy and exacerbate the budget deficit, Mr. Meese predicted.
Mr. McGovern acknowledged that the Democratic-controlled Congress had contributed to the budget deficit -- by going along with Reagan/ Bush-era increases in defense spending and tax cuts.
"If there's been any fault with the Congress, it's not that it's been Democratic, it's that it hasn't been Democratic enough," Mr. McGovern said.
Mr. Meese conceded that change is needed, but not the ill-conceived change proposed by Mr. Clinton.