Al Gore and Bill Bradley faced off Wednesday night in the first debate of 2000. Here’s a play-by-play analysis of the debate’s key themes and exchanges.
1. Ball control. In football, your opponent can’t score unless he has the ball. Therefore, the longer you keep possession of the ball, the more likely you are to win the game. Gore is killing Bradley in this department by staying on the attack. Let’s look at three plays from the debate.
a) Moderator Peter Jennings asks each man whether his opponent has “ever taken a vote of yours or a quote out of context.” Bradley says yes. Gore dances around the question (“I haven’t complained about any. … I won’t accuse him of that”), then finally says no. Bradley gives the honest answer, but Gore gives the smart one. Normally, when you’re invited to accuse your opponent of something, the smart course is to accept the offer. But look more closely: Jennings is inviting you to accuse your opponent of accusing you of something. You’re the one ultimately being accused. Suppose you say you’re angry that your opponent has accused you of kicking your dog. Some viewers, after turning off their televisions, will think your opponent is a vicious liar. But most will wonder whether you kick your dog.
By saying no, Gore avoids this trap. Bradley, however, walks into it. He faults Gore for suggesting “that I was going to hurt African-Americans [and] Latinos with [my] health care program” and “that I am going to destroy Medicaid without saying what it is going to be replaced with.” Bradley explains why Gore’s charge is unfair, but Gore gets to repeat and elaborate on the accusation: “Medicaid is eliminated, and they’re given instead a little $150 a month voucher. … Not a single [health plan] can be purchased for anything close to $150 a month.” Bradley explains that his $150 is a “weighted average,” not a cap. But Gore tells a joke making fun of “weighted average” as a nerdy weasel word. Gore is lying about the “cap” and the “voucher.” But politically, he wins the round, because both men end up spending several minutes discussing the principal charge against Bradley without discussing any of the charges against Gore.
b) Another panelist asks each candidate whether “you have ever had to make a difficult decision that you knew would hurt you politically.” Bradley picks a vote on which he differed from “most of my Democratic colleagues.” Gore, however, picks two votes on which he differed specifically from Bradley: President Reagan’s budget cuts (“I wish that Bill had stood up to that one”) and the authorization to use force in the Persian Gulf (on which Bradley voted no). Bradley answers the question at face value. Gore uses it to land two good punches.
c) Each candidate is invited to ask a question of the other. Bradley asks Gore why he isn’t proposing universal health-insurance coverage. Gore neutralizes the question and turns it on Bradley. “Both of us have proposed the same goal: high-quality health care for all,” says Gore. “I devoted $374 billion to the solvency of Medicare. You have not devoted one penny to ensuring the solvency of Medicare. And my question to you is: Why not?” Bradley complains that it’s not Gore’s time to ask questions. But Jennings replies that Gore can ask the question, and Bradley never gets off a solid answer to it.
2. Gore’s credibility problem. Gore makes lots of allegations about Bradley’s past votes and future plans. To sustain those allegations, Gore needs to husband his credibility. The best way to do this is to admit the truth when it’s disadvantageous to him. He begins by making such a concession about the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal: “It was wrong. And I think that the phone calls that I made were a mistake.” But as the debate goes on, Gore repeatedly strains credulity. He asks New Hampshire voters “to give me a come-from-behind upset victory here,” and then, after Bradley points out the absurdity of Gore’s plea–“Al, your underdog pitch brings tears to my eyes”–Gore repeats his claim that it would be an “upset victory.”
Yes, if Gore wins New Hampshire, he could argue that it’s an upset. And, yes, he needs the media to buy into that assumption. But saying it so baldly, and then repeating it, is counterproductive. Gore does this all the time–“risky tax scheme,” “no controlling legal authority,” etc.–and seems incapable of controlling the habit. The problem is not that he comes off as a talking-points robot–which he does–but that he insults everyone’s intelligence. He looks like a suck-up student who thinks he can get a good grade by parroting the professor’s buzzwords. When he calls Republican tax cuts a “tax scheme” and calls his hypothetical New Hampshire victory an “upset,” you get the feeling not only that he’s twisting the truth, but also that he thinks you’re too stupid to realize it. And the deeper that feeling sinks in, the less attention voters will pay to anything Gore says.
3. Bradley’s arrogance problem. If Gore’s flaw is dishonesty, Bradley’s flaw is moral and intellectual vanity. Bradley began the campaign determined to convey his virtue and wisdom, and he succeeded. Now his problem is that he can’t turn it off. The more he equates his candidacy with goodness and enlightenment, and the more condescendingly he dismisses Gore (“Let me explain to you, Al, how the private sector works. … I can say that in much shorter words”), the more voters wonder whether Bradley knows his limits and is capable of learning from his mistakes.
Gore, recognizing this Achilles’ heel, goes after it with a crowbar. Reciting Bradley’s votes for the Reagan budget cuts, against welfare reform, and against the use force in the Persian Gulf, Gore asks, “Would you vote differently on any of those three votes if you had it to do over again? Were they mistakes?” Bradley replies that they weren’t, and Gore pounces on this answer: “I think all three were mistakes, but I’m not going to debate the details. … My point is beyond that, Bill. In all those words about the three different votes, one word I didn’t hear was the word ‘mistake.’ And here’s why I think that is important. I think our country deserves a president who, when he makes a mistake, is willing to acknowledge it and willing to learn from it, because I believe that the presidency is not an academic exercise. It’s not an extended seminar on theory. … If I make a mistake, I’ll do my best to own up to it and then to learn from it, and learn from you [the audience] about how we can deal with the reality as we find it.”
Eventually, Bradley remembers something he admits was a mistake–“I voted against Alan Greenspan the first time” –and everybody laughs. But Gore has found a big chink in Bradley’s armor. He has found three votes on which Bradley took unpopular positions, and he has found that when pressed about those votes, Bradley exposes a character trait that puts off many voters. If history is any guide, Gore will exploit that dilemma for the rest of the campaign. But if Gore doesn’t learn to stop talking like a used car salesman, nobody’s going to be listening.