Ballot Box

Gore Mellows

Editor’s note: Jacob Weisberg has filed a report from Thursday’s debate among the GOP presidential candidates. Click here to read it.

DURHAM, N.H–A good night for Al Gore. His progress in this, the fifth Democratic debate, was finally arriving at a reasonable tone. As in the previous encounters, Gore was highly critical of his rival. But this time he was able to be critical of Bill Bradley without coming off as smarmy or hectoring. Gore made all his familiar criticisms–that Bradley wasn’t putting any money aside for Medicare, that his health-care plan wouldn’t cover everybody, and that when the going got tough in the Senate, Bradley got going. But absent was about 80 percent of the sense of artificiality that characterized Gore’s earlier performances. Gore dispensed with the vocalized sighs and weary head-shakings of the Meet the Press debate. This meant that you could listen to what he was saying without having to spend the whole time disliking him.

Gore also included one new attack on Bradley that was very much on point. He finally took the advice of “Kausfiles” and nailed Bradley for opposing welfare reform in 1996. Given the opportunity to ask Bradley a direct question, Gore asked whether his opponent thought he made a mistake on three big votes in the Senate–in favor of the Reagan budget cuts, against the use of force resolution the Gulf War, and against welfare reform. Bradley responded with a stream of gobbledygook, the thrust of which was that he stood by his decisions and would do the same again, even with the benefit of hindsight.

“I think all three of them were a mistake,” Gore responded, neatly underscoring the lameness of Bradley’s answer. “I think that people were trapped in the old welfare system. … Saddam Hussein would still be in Kuwait if we had tried to rely on sanctions. Those budget cuts from Ronald Reagan hurt New Hampshire.”

Peter Jennings, who was a somewhat off-key moderator throughout the event, then asked a pointless thumbsucker of a follow-up: “How large a mistake is a president allowed to make?” The occasion not being a seminar at the Kennedy School, both candidates wisely ignored him. Jennings’ other moment of weirdness was asking Bradley “what you really thought when Gore held out his hand” in the last debate–as if he was hosting some kind of debate post-game show rather than the debate itself. Infinitely less adept at stoking an argument than Tim Russert, Jennings kept trying to get the candidates to repeat highlights from their previous session. But perhaps because arguing offends his sense of politeness, he kept trying to change the subject when they did start scrapping. Perhaps Jennings was confused about how to handle a broadcast that didn’t involve any costume changes.

His pathetic answer on welfare aside, Bradley turned in a strong performance as well. Substantively, I thought his best moment was his question to Gore about why the vice president wouldn’t join him in supporting the registration and licensing of all handguns. Gore’s lame response was that “it doesn’t have a prayer of ever becoming law.” Bradley then delivered a lecture on what it means to be a leader. “Where would the country be today if Franklin Roosevelt said Social Security’s too difficult to do? Of if Lyndon Johnson said Medicaid’s too difficult to do? The essence of leadership is taking something that is difficult and making it possible because you engage the American people in an attempt to make it happen.”

Bradley’s other best riff came after Gore asked him again why he hadn’t put money aside for Medicare. After explaining that continued strong economic growth might vaporize the problem, Bradley tried to cast Gore as a small-minded inside-the-Beltway character for dwelling on the point. “When I hear you talk, Al, it reminds me of a Washington bunker. I think you’re in the Washington bunker. … The Democratic Party shouldn’t be in the Washington bunker with you.”

Canned as it probably was, this was a wicked sound bite. It would have been more effective, though, if Gore had been badgering Bradley the way he has in previous debates. But for the first time, Gore wasn’t the clear aggressor–and Bradley wasn’t clearly the aggrieved.