Did Al Gore win last night’s debate against George W. Bush? A lot of pundits think so. Some, reviewing the candidates’ arguments like high-school debate judges, conclude that Bush lost by failing to rebut many of Gore’s points. Others, tallying each candidate’s speaking time the way sportscasters track a football team’s time of ball possession, declare Gore the victor for dominating the discussion. Others cite polls showing that a plurality of voters thinks Gore won. But in those same polls, Bush lost no votes. Why not? Because a presidential debate is a more complex exercise than a football game or a high-school speech contest. And while Gore, the classically assiduous student, aced the obvious tests, he failed the subtle ones. Here’s a report card.
1. Content. This is the standard by which many commentators judge Gore the winner: He controlled the agenda and scored more hits than his opponent did. But Gore forgot that the battle of content takes place on three levels.
A. Topics. Gore focused the discussion on his issues (prescription drugs, Medicare, Social Security) and kept it away from Bush’s issues (education, energy, the military). Within each issue, Gore hammered home his messages (Bush would raid the trust funds, Bush’s tax cut helps the rich at the expense of the middle class), drowning out Bush’s messages (the Bush tax cut helps everyone, Gore would put seniors in a government HMO). Moderator Jim Lehrer forced Bush to spend as much time talking about abortion as about Bush’s best issue, education. By disputing Gore’s role in the economic boom, Bush extended the discussion of Gore’s best topic, allowing Gore to recite figures about job creation and to link the pre-Clinton recession to Republican policies.
B. Lines. Every debater hopes to impress upon viewers one or two substantive claims that they’ll remember afterward. Gore, the master of repetition (“risky tax scheme,” “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment”), again prevailed in this department. His mantras were: 1) Bush allots more money to tax cuts for “the wealthiest 1 percent” than to new spending on education, health care, and defense combined (11 mentions); 2) Gore would put Medicare and Social Security in a “lockbox” (seven mentions); and 3) Bush would “divert one out of every six dollars” from Social Security to the stock market (five mentions). What were Bush’s sharpest substantive claims? The reason you can’t remember them is that he didn’t repeat them.
C. Themes. Here’s where Gore outsmarted himself. Evidently, he meant to package himself as the candidate of “the people, not the powerful.” But he was so busy rattling off lines, facts, and figures that he scattered his message. Conversely, Bush was so vague about facts and figures that his two essential messages shone through: 1) Gore wants to empower government, whereas Bush wants to empower individuals; and 2) Gore and the Democrats run on the same promises every four years (prescription drugs, middle-class tax cuts) because they keep failing to fulfill them.
2. Ability. Many voters understand, as Lehrer pointed out, that a president’s job consists largely of managing issues he didn’t run on and crises he didn’t anticipate. These voters discount Gore’s control of the debate agenda, figuring that he’d face a different agenda as president anyway. The most salient factor they look for during the debate, therefore, is the capacity of each candidate to master the issues, handle pressure, and think on his feet. In this comparison, Gore won on intellect but lost on temperament.
A. Knowledge. Bush passed the Dan Quayle test: When asked what steps he would take in a crisis, he answered coherently. Nevertheless, Gore overwhelmed him with obscure knowledge. Gore expounded on the prospects of Serbian presidential candidate Vojislav Kostunica, explained that Yugoslavia was “Serbia plus Montenegro,” and discussed the value of the peso and the euro. Meanwhile, he exposed Bush’s ignorance. When Bush said he hoped the Food and Drug Administration “took its time” evaluating RU-486, Gore pointed out that the agency had taken 12 years. When Bush said Russia should use its “sway” to resolve Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s election fraud, Gore embarrassed him by noting that Russia sides with Milosevic. It was news to Bush.
B. Agility. Voters will forgive a candidate who doesn’t know his way around every issue. But they won’t forgive a candidate who refuses to ask for directions. Bush flunked this test spectacularly. Each time Gore challenged Bush’s budget arithmetic, Bush shrugged off the criticism as “phony numbers” and “fuzzy math.” Rather than rebut Gore’s critique of his prescription-drug plan, Bush scoffed, “This is a man—he’s got great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator.” Instead of refuting Gore’s critique of his tax cut, Bush sputtered, “This man has been disparaging my plan with all this Washington fuzzy math.” Moments like these left the impression not only that Bush can’t think his way through a budget but that he doesn’t care.
C. Poise. While pundits analyze the debate’s strategic components, most voters assess the candidates the same way they would scrutinize a new neighbor, acquaintance, or job applicant: What kind of man is Al Gore? What kind of man is George W. Bush? Ordinary people are just as practiced at resolving these questions as journalists are—and less distracted. They smell anxiety. They see through artifice. They recognize a man who knows who he is. Despite Gore’s command of the facts, he conveyed with his darting eyes, strained grins, scripted gestures, and rushed delivery—never mind his grotesquely excessive makeup—the same calculating insecurity Richard Nixon projected in his 1960 debate against John F. Kennedy. Bush, on the other hand, spoke slowly, comfortably, and straightforwardly, as Kennedy did. He seemed relaxed, genuine, and unafraid.
3. Tone. Contrary to Gore’s constant assertion that the presidency is supposed to be filled by someone who will “fight for all of the people,” most voters want the president to embody the country’s virtues, including civility and maturity. They don’t like petty fighting and insults. By this standard, each candidate botched half his performance. Bush sang screechy lyrics, while Gore played screechy music.
A. Words. Bush opened with a nod to “my worthy opponent” but quickly degenerated into acrimony. He accused Gore of using “phony numbers,” warned “those of you who he wants to scare,” and set a new low in debate etiquette by repeatedly calling Gore “the man” and “this man” (“The man’s running on Mediscare. … This man has been disparaging my plan. … This man has no credibility”). Many of Bush’s jabs—his lame joke about Gore inventing the calculator, for example—were non sequiturs. Others were thrown at precisely the wrong moment. After Gore pleaded for bipartisanship in foreign policy, Bush inexplicably retorted, “Yeah, why haven’t they done it in seven years?”
Gore played the situation perfectly. He declined Lehrer’s invitation to criticize Bush’s inexperience, addressing policy differences instead. As the debate wore on, Gore, without hitting back, called attention to every punch Bush threw: “The governor used the phrase ‘phony numbers’ … I’m not going to go calling names.” In the debate’s closing exchange, Bush rehashed the Buddhist temple and “no controlling legal authority.” Gore promptly brained him with the predictable rejoinder: “I think we ought to attack our country’s problems, not attack each other.” Bush, who seems to believe that no mistake should go unrepeated, then said of campaign reform, “I am not going to lay down my arms in the middle of the campaign for somebody who has got no credibility on the issue.” Gore brained him again: “Gov. Bush, you have attacked my character and credibility. And I am not going to respond in kind. I think we ought to focus on the problems and not attack each other.”
B. Demeanor. The mystery of the night was how a candidate who understood exactly which words to say understood nothing about how to say them. With every vocal inflection and facial gesture, Gore oozed gamesmanship and sanctimony. He sighed with disgust so audibly, visibly, and persistently that he overshadowed Bush’s verbal offenses. On paper, Gore’s concluding rebuke to Bush (“You have attacked my character”) was impeccable. But his delivery—through a ghastly, gritted-teeth smile that conveyed hatred without passion—ruined the effect. The general physical impression left by the debate is that each of these men despises the other, but only one is honest about it.
You could argue that Gore won the debate because he prevailed in most of the contests within the contest. But not all contests are equal. It could be argued just as easily that Bush lost the battles and won the war. The Bush camp’s pre-debate spin—that Gore behaves like a robot in these forums—turns out to be a pretty apt post-debate verdict. Robots are methodical, efficient, and relentless. Give them a set of clearly defined tasks, and they’ll beat any human. Just don’t ask them to comprehend tasks that can’t be clearly defined—or to figure out which kind of task is more important.