CLAREMONT, N.H. - A handshake summed up what many had expected to be a divisive debate between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Before their answers to the first question from the audience were finished, the two had agreed to form a bipartisan commission to reform laws on special-interest lobbying.
"You want to do it on lobby reform?" Clinton said, interrupting Gingrich. "In a heartbeat. I accept."
"Let's shake hands," Gingrich said, and they did, as about 300 senior citizens seated at outdoor picnic tables here yesterday applauded.
That's the way it went in one of the more unlikely events of the dawning 1996 presidential campaign, already under way here in New Hampshire, where the first primary votes are eight months away.
It was also a polite struggle over the role of the federal government in Americans' lives. Here is a look at just how polite those differences were yesterday.
Clinton: Speaking of his 1992 campaign: "I said then, and I will reiterate now, what we need is an economic strategy that focuses on creating jobs and raising income, a social strategy that rewards work and family in terms of welfare reform and everything else we do, that reinforces responsible child rearing and responsible work. That we ought to do it in a way that reduced the size of the government and reduced the bureaucratic burden of the government, but kept the government on the side of ordinary Americans."
Gingrich: "I believe in this process, working with the president, with the House and the Senate. I believe we can get to a balanced budget in a positive way. I believe we can save Medicare and it will not go broke. . . . I believe we can create a better future for our children and grandchildren, but it's got to be done exactly like here today."
Clinton: Both agreed on the need to restructure Medicare so that more elderly people wind up in managed-care programs such as health-maintenance organizations. But Clinton took aim at GOP plans to reduce Medicare growth by about $300 billion in seven years and said any cutbacks will be smaller if the GOP agrees to drop its tax cuts.
"I'd say let's cut it (Medicare) as little as possible until we know how much we can save. If we lock ourselves into a tax cut . . . then we end up not funding it (Medicare)."
But, as a symbol of the civility of the event, the president refrained from using a line he has used before, that Republicans "would cut Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the rich."
Gingrich: He emphasized that spending on Medicare would increase under GOP plans, just not as much as is now projected to meet its needs, and that Republicans would give seniors a menu of choices to preserve coverage they now have.
Gingrich sought to play down differences on the need for cutbacks in Medicare. GOP spending would be "less than the current projections. I'm not trying to kid anybody," he said, adding that "I think in spirit we're not that far apart."
Clinton: Even though he has relied far more on internationalism than his predecessors, he offered faint praise for the United Nations: "As bad and as ragged as it is, the U.N. is better than nothing."
And, rewriting slightly the history of U.S. involvement in Bosnia, the president said England and France had sent their peacekeepers into the conflict under rules of engagement he could not accept, strongly suggesting that he found fault with the rules set by the United Nations.
The president also took issue with a foreign-aid bill passed last week by the House and pending in the Senate. He said it tied his hands as commander-in-chief and cut foreign aid too much.
Gingrich: The United States and not the United Nations, he said, had kept the peace during the Cold War by its defense spending, by the sacrifice of its soldiers and by making the choice to lead.
"If my choice is three U.N. secretary generals and one (U.S.) aircraft carrier, I can tell you which one I prefer," Gingrich said. He criticized the U.N.'s system of command and control over peacekeepers as "a nightmare. You don't send a military to be hostages; you send a military to rescue hostages."
On the House foreign-aid bill, Gingrich expressed strong doubt that the legislation, as constructed, would become law. He said the Senate was likely to alter it and negotiations would ensue to avoid a threatened Clinton veto.
Clinton: "I think it's a tiny cost for a big gain," he said of his program giving post-secondary school aid to young people who do community work. "And that's our difference."
Gingrich: He praised the concept but said that in a time of very tight federal money, it was not a spending choice Republicans would make. They would prefer, he said, to directly help charities.
"I don't fault him for his vision," Gingrich said of Clinton. "It's a question of philosophy and priorities."
Clinton: He repeated his support of an increase.
Gingrich: He opposed the idea, saying it might increase unemployment, particularly among poor black men if they were laid off to pay higher wages of others.
Compiled from The Washington Post, Knight-Ridder Newspapers and Associated Press.