Debatable politics

The first of the three presidential debates (October 3) between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush was as lacking in drama and clarifying disagreement as it was in humor. In short, a bore. Each candidate was carefully scripted, with both men determined to avoid launching the sort of personal attack that undecided voters appear to find objectionable. The artificiality of the situation was highlighted by the October 5 vice-presidential debate between Senator Joseph Lieberman and former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Cheney and Lieberman seemed effortless where Gore and Bush were most mannered, and the calm and deliberative way in which the two older men laid out their differences made Gore and Bush look like not-ready-for-prime-time players.

As we go to press, the presidential candidates are about to debate a second time. The format for this exchange of views will be more informal, with greater opportunity to question each other directly. Bush thinks the setting will favor his more relaxed and likable personality. Gore hopes Bush’s frail grasp of policy details will become evident during cross-examination. However, thanks to the lackluster first encounter, the second debate (October 11) is likely to draw an even smaller television audience and have less of an impact on the race. Although some event or statement can still change the dynamic of the election, it is likely that each man will continue to guard against making mistakes instead of taking risks to win over voters.

Still, the first face-to-face meeting between Gore and Bush did illuminate basic differences. How to allocate the next ten years’ projected budget surpluses is the question facing the nation-at least it is the most pressing question the candidates think is facing the nation. Bush emphasizes the traditional Republican demand for less government and lower taxes, arguing that now is the time to return money ($1.3 trillion) to taxpayers and to partially privatize Social Security and Medicare. Gore, in turn, rejects privatization, arguing that government must guarantee these entitlement programs. The money Bush would devote to tax cuts, Gore says, should be used to shore up the Social Security fund and expand Medicare coverage.

Similarly, Bush contends that Gore’s proposals will enlarge government, establish expensive new programs, and result either in large deficits or higher taxes or both. Gore insists that Bush’s tax cut disproportionately favors only the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers. Each man charges the other with playing fast and loose with the numbers. The consensus among experts is that Bush’s math is the more suspect. More important, however, is the fact that both candidates base their proposals on the very shaky assumption that enormous budget surpluses are to be counted on. An economic slowdown will quickly make this entire debate moot, and that possibility lends an air of unreality to the candidates’ promises.

How voters respond to the overall demeanor of each man is the subject of widespread speculation. Bush’s relative composure and articulateness may have laid to rest some concerns about whether or not he is "up to the job." Still, his command of the issues was hardly masterly, and he was unsure of himself in discussing foreign policy and, surprisingly, on the Supreme Court and abortion. Gore was surefooted, but came across as longwinded and pedantic. He has also been accused of mugging for the cameras and stretching the truth in the anecdotal stories he told. Voters looking for a level of comfort with Gore’s personality still need to be wooed.

Both candidates fudge on difficult issues. Take abortion. In many swing states abortion is a crucial, if muted, factor, especially among undecided women voters. Bush’s evasive answers about abortion understandably alarmed his prolife supporters. But his dilemma is clear enough: the Republican Party’s antichoice stance is an obstacle to attracting undecided (mostly) women voters. Consequently, Bush went out of his way to indicate that he was not an extremist who would make overturning Roe v. Wade a high priority, and explicitly condemned only partial-birth abortion. Then, seeing an opportunity to maximize his advantage, Gore, like Clinton before him, disingenuously touted his own opposition to the procedure, saying he would sign a bill banning partial-birth abortion provided it made exceptions for the life or health of the mother. The health exception, of course, makes any prospective ban meaningless. Gore’s stated objection to one form of abortion does raise an interesting question, however. Gore endlessly boasts that unlike Bush, he supports "a woman’s right to choose." But if he is willing to ban partial-birth abortion under certain circumstances, he cannot logically support "a woman’s right to choose" in all cases. Someone should ask Gore why he doesn’t support a healthy woman’s right to choose partial-birth abortion. Shouldn’t all abortion decisions be a woman’s alone? Or could it be that there is something at stake other than a woman’s right to choose in late-term abortions?

An answer to a question like that might make the final weeks of this election campaign worthy of the public’s attention.

Published in the 2000-10-20 issue: 
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