Debators’ Stock Answers

As stock prices have flopped around in recent weeks, there’s been a bit of argument here and there as to which presidential candidate the market might prefer; there was even an attempt to blame the averages’ sorry September on Al Gore’s poll numbers. But the stock market made only a brief appearance in last night’s debate, and in keeping with its mood lately, that question was about disaster. “The stock market could take a tumble,” moderator Jim Lehrer said laconically. “There could be a failure of a major financial institution. What is your general attitude toward government intervention in such events?”

Bush replied first. “Well, it depends, obviously,” he said tentatively. “But what I would do, first and foremost, is I would get in touch with the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, to find out all the facts and all the circumstances. I would have my secretary of treasury be in touch with the financial centers, not only here but at home.” (Let’s assume that by this last bit, which made Jacob Weisberg’s “Bushism of the Day,” the candidate meant that his secretary of treasury would be in touch with officials in non-U.S. financial centers.) “I would make sure that key members of Congress were called in to discuss the gravity of the situation. And I would come up with a game plan to deal with it.”

There’s nothing in particular here to disagree with–but then again, it’s probably what you would do if, for some reason, you happened to be put in charge of the free world tomorrow and there was a financial meltdown the next morning. That is, we would call some people who might have some idea what the hell was going on and what to do about it. But if Bush’s answer wasn’t exactly impressive, at least it was honest. And he got bonus points for actually naming the Fed’s chairman (a feat he didn’t dare attempt in his earlier reference to “the president of Russia”).

Then came Gore’s turn to say something “on the international financial crises that come up. My friend Bob Rubin, former secretary of treasury, is here,” Gore began. “He’s a very close adviser to me and a great friend in all respects. I have had a chance to work with him and Alan Greenspan and others on the crisis following the collapse of the Mexican peso, when the Asian financial crisis raised the risk of worldwide recession that could affect our economy. And now, of course, the euro’s value has been dropping but seems to be under control.” Then Gore essentially switched gears and said that in last eight years the United States has seen “the greatest prosperity ever. But it’s not good enough. And my attitude is, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

This is actually more of a nonanswer than what Bush gave. So what if he’s buddies with “Bob” Rubin? What exactly was Gore’s role in dealing with those past crises, and how did that experience affect his thinking about government intervention, which is after all what the question was? I tend to agree with Jacob Weisberg’s assessment of the debate overall, which is that Gore dominated it. But Gore’s performance on this question was exactly the sort of response that makes some observers so cynical about politics: He dropped a name, took credit for other people’s actions, made an unhelpful reference to current events, and finished off with a campaign cliché. Lehrer’s question was a good one. It’s too bad it got one bland answer and one nonanswer.