Ballot Box

The Iowa Democratic Debate: Remembering Lenny

I now understand why Gore wants to debate so much. On his better days, he’s damned good at it. In today’s Des Moines Register debate in Iowa, Gore was truly formidable, performing better than he has in any of his five previous encounters with Bill Bradley. To be sure, Gore was demagogic, gimmicky, and condescending at times–he can’t help it. But he was also lethal throughout.

Gore’s most devastating shot came with the help of what I believe may be a technical innovation in presidential debating: the use of human props. As he put a question about agriculture to Bradley, Gore asked a member of the audience named Chris Peterson to stand. Peterson, Gore explained, was an Iowa farmer with 400 acres, 300 of which were flooded in 1993. Bradley, Gore noted, voted in the Senate against emergency federal aid for those affected. “Why did you vote against disaster relief for Chris Peterson?” Gore asked. 

Bradley, who should have been prepared to defend this vote, simply had no answer at all to the question of why he wanted to drown this friendly looking farmer along with his hogs and beans. He tried to play Gore’s question off with the lame bromide that the candidates should be talking not about the past but about the future. When Gore came back at him again with the question, Bradley irrelevantly asserted that he supported the federal tax subsidy for ethanol. Bradley was so clearly nailed on this failing-to-pander charge that Gore was able to resist his usual urge to flog a dead horse, and didn’t bring it up a third time.

Though Gore’s use of Peterson, and of a public school teacher he had also planted in the audience was compelling, I don’t think it will lead to any good. When Ronald Reagan introduced a similar device in his first State of the Union address in 1982–by inviting Lenny Skutnik, a government employee who dived into the Potomac to rescue a survivor of an airplane accident–it was a nice touch.  Since then, though, the heroes-in-the-gallery gambit has gotten completely out of hand, turning the State of the Union address into a version of the Grammys for people who can’t sing.

Gore did one other notably shrewd thing this afternoon. Responding to Bradley’s “bunker mentality” charge from the last debate, he finally stood up and took credit for the record of the Clinton administration. “The other night in a debate, Sen. Bradley criticized me and other Democrats for being in what he called a Washington bunker,” Gore said in his opening statement. “So I want to start by telling you what we were doing in that Washington bunker. We created 20 million new jobs, cut the welfare rolls in half, passed the toughest gun control in a generation, and created the strongest economy in the history of the United States of America.” 

I was wondering when Gore was going to get around to sticking up for the president. Running away from Clinton as Gore has been doing makes the liability of “Clinton fatigue” into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But embracing Clinton’s accomplishments plays to what I consider to be Gore’s single greatest asset as a candidate: that he represents the continuation of Clinton’s popular and successful policies without the continuation of Clinton himself.