For the second time in a week, polls and pundits have instantly proclaimed one candidate the clear winner of a presidential debate. And for the second time, they’re wrong. Last week, the presumed winner was Al Gore. This week, it’s George W. Bush. The same commentators who castigated Gore three days ago for acting like a bully are now calling him a wimp, arguing that his “subdued” performance allowed Bush to project presidential stature and leadership. But Gore’s low-key approach served several purposes too subtle to be picked up by the post-game analysts and name-the-winner polls. This time, instead of trying to “win” the debate, Gore did what was best for his candidacy.
Short of a colossal gaffe, it’s hard to imagine how Bush could have “lost” the debate. It was stacked in his favor from the outset. The format dissolved the candidates’ stature gap by seating them together at a table. The subject matter played to Republican strengths on foreign policy and military affairs. The political climate going into the debate foreclosed Gore’s attacking options by punishing any appearance of incivility. Under these circumstances, Gore couldn’t win the showdown. But he advanced important defensive objectives and scored as many points as he could by limiting his ambitions and getting out of the way of his own words. He accomplished more by attempting less.
To begin with, Gore avoided repeating the errors of the first debate. The post-game analysts, taking this for granted, faulted him for failing to dominate the exchange. But political pundits, like sports pundits, underrate the importance of defense. Gore’s central task last night was to stop the bleeding, and he did it. He didn’t sigh, shake his head, assail Bush, or interrupt moderator Jim Lehrer. He didn’t change facial expressions like a salesman. He kept the pitch and volume of his voice under control. He couched his statements carefully to limit the risk of error, and he agreed with Bush as often as possible. When Bush characterized Gore’s record or his own in ways that must have infuriated Gore, the vice president kept his mouth zipped and didn’t flinch. At these moments, Gore either stared attentively at Bush, conveying perfunctory respect, or stared down, conveying patience and deference.
Second, without fanfare, Gore shored up his positions on two subjects that have hurt him over the past week. Halfway through the debate, Gore politely mentioned to Lehrer, “Jim, I hope that we can come back to the subject of education.” Lehrer ignored him and never raised the subject again, so Gore spent his closing statement on it. He stared into the camera, declared, “Education is my No. 1 priority,” and explained, “My plan starts with new accountability and maintains local control. … I want to give new choices to parents to send their kids to college with a $10,000 tax deduction for college tuition. … I want to reduce the size of the classrooms … so that students can get more one-on-one time with teachers. … I’ve a plan in my budget to recruit 100,000 new highly qualified teachers and to help local school districts build new schools.” By signaling his interest with an early question and then devoting his closing statement to this topic, Gore showed voters what Bush has shown them throughout the campaign: that he cares. Bush, conversely, scattered his closing statement into a Gore-like laundry list of promises.
The other subject on which Gore recovered some ground was the size of government. He used a question about health insurance to mention, “I’m not for a government-run system. In fact, I’m for shrinking the size of government. … I have been in charge of this reinventing-government streamlining project that’s reduced the size of government by more than 300,000 people in the last several years, and the budget plan that I’ve put out … as a percentage of the GDP will bring government spending down to the lowest level in 50 years.” The quiet, tangential way in which Gore tucked this message into his answer didn’t hinder its effectiveness. NBC’s focus group indicated that it left a good impression.
Third, Gore reserved his emphasis for overarching beliefs. In the first debate, he was so busy scoring points that he failed to communicate themes. This time, he passed up small differences to focus on big ones. In the opening minutes, he repeatedly steered the foreign policy discussion to “our values”—human rights, equality, and stopping genocide. Later, he used a question about international aid to frame the election as a referendum on whether the United States would “step up to the plate” and lead on global economic and environmental issues. Toward the end, he answered a question about the environment by quoting from the scripture of “my faith tradition.” The quote—”Where your heart is, there is your treasure also”—had nothing to do with the environment but everything to do with projecting heart and faith. Then Gore delivered the best speech of the night:
I got some of the details wrong last week in some of the examples that I used, Jim, and I’m sorry about that. And I’m going to try to do better. … Getting a detail wrong interfered several times with the point that I was trying to make. However many days that young girl in Florida stood in her classroom, however long, even if it was only one day, doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of overcrowded classrooms in America, and we need to do something about that. There are seniors who pay more for their prescriptions than a lot of other people, more than their pets sometimes … and we need to do something about that. … I can’t promise that I will never get another detail wrong. … But I will promise you this, with all the confidence in my heart … If I’m elected president, I’ll work my heart out to get the big things right for the American people.
That passage was almost Clintonesque in its brilliance. It punctured Gore’s aura of superiority, diminished his misstatements by putting them in context, defused a weeklong media feeding frenzy, resuscitated his best arguments about two of the most salient issues in the election, and elevated him from the contest of “details”—which he had won in the first debate, only to discover that nobody cared—to the contest of “heart” and “the big things,” which Bush had won to great effect.
Fourth, by softening his delivery, Gore let his point-by-point arguments speak for themselves. In the first debate, he stepped on his lines by hitting them too hard. Instead of absorbing what Gore said—that Bush was endangering Social Security and squandering the surplus on a tax cut for the rich—viewers merely absorbed that Gore was pummeling Bush. This time, Gore unobtrusively scored a series of deft jabs. To wit:
1. Genocide. The old Gore would have accused Bush of tolerating genocide. The new Gore raised this idea more delicately: “Maybe I’ve heard the previous statements wrong, Governor. In some of the discussions we’ve had … the standards that you’ve laid down have given me the impression that if it’s something like a genocide taking place … that wouldn’t be the kind of situation that would cause you to think that the U.S. ought to get involved with troops. … That, to me, can bring into play a fundamental American strategic interest because I think it’s based on our values. Now, have I got that wrong?” Overlooking the key word, “values,” Bush replied that he would reserve troops for U.S. “strategic interests.” Instead of calling Bush callous or obtuse, Gore nodded silently and allowed that impression to sink in on its own.
2. Rwanda. Bush said the Clinton administration “made the right decision not to send U.S. troops into Rwanda.” Gore corrected him: “We did actually send troops into Rwanda to help with the humanitarian relief measures.” Rather than drag out this dispute in an attempt to humiliate Bush—as the old Gore did in the first debate on the question of Russian intervention in Yugoslavia—the new Gore retreated quickly into appropriate self-criticism: “I think in retrospect we were too late getting in there. We could have saved more lives if we had acted earlier.”
3. Nation-building. The old Gore would have directly attacked Bush’s contempt for “nation-building.” The new Gore undermined Bush’s position more subtly, by telling a story: “During the years between World War I and World War II, a great lesson was learned by our military leaders. … In the aftermath of World War I, we kind of turned our backs and left [the Europeans] to their own devices, and they brewed up a lot of trouble that quickly became World War II. And acting upon that lesson, in the aftermath of our great victory in World War II, we laid down the Marshall Plan. … We got intimately involved in building NATO and other structures there. … We were nation-building.”
4. Preparedness. The old Gore would have chided Bush for asserting, contrary to a statement from the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, that two U.S. Army divisions were unready for duty. The new Gore tiptoed up to this topic gingerly, left himself out of it by framing it as a dispute between Bush and the Joint Chiefs, and glossed over any hint of animosity by agreeing with Bush on a related question: “We’ve had some disagreements about that. He said that two divisions would have to report not ready for duty, and that’s not what the Joint Chiefs say. But there’s no doubt that we have to continue building up readiness and military strength.”
5. Hate crimes. The old Gore would have pounced on Bush’s claim that Texas has a hate crimes law. The new Gore waited patiently until Lehrer asked another question about discrimination, at which point Gore, far from denouncing Bush, adopted the self-effacing Detective Columbo posture: “I guess I had misunderstood the governor’s previous position. The Byrd family [whose son was killed in a Texas hate crime] may have a misunderstanding of it in Texas also. … I had thought that there was a controversy at the end of the legislative session where the hate crimes law in Texas failed and that the Byrd family among others asked you to support it, Governor, and it died in committee for lack of support. Am I wrong about that? … I may have been misled by all the news reports about this matter.” Again, rather than call Bush a liar, Gore feigned humility and left Bush to explain his disagreement with more credible sources.
6. ENDA. The old Gore would have accused Bush of opposing civil rights for gays and lesbians. The new Gore simply described a piece of legislation and inquired about Bush’s position on it: “There is a law pending called the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. I strongly support it. What is says is that gays and lesbians can’t be fired from their job because they’re gay or lesbian. … It’s been blocked by the opponents in the majority in the Congress. I wonder if the governor would lend his support to that law.” Bush was obliged to confess, “Well, I have no idea. I mean, he can throw out all kinds of—I don’t know the particulars of this law.” Gore didn’t try to make Bush’s answer look evasive and ignorant. He didn’t have to.
7. Health care. The old Gore would have slammed Bush’s home-state record on health care and the environment. The new Gore adopted Joe Lieberman’s apologetic approach: “I’m sorry to tell you … Texas ranks 49th out of the 50 states [in] children with health care, 49th for women with health care, and 50th for families with health care.” Gore feigned nonparticipation in this controversy—”I’m no expert on the Texas procedures. … You don’t have to take my word for this, there is now a federal judge’s opinion”—while casually repeating the statistics “about Texas ranking dead last in families with health insurance and 49th out of 50 for both children and women.” (Gore pulled the same stunt later, mentioning offhandedly that “Texas is No. 1 in industrial pollution.”) It was Bush who became visibly angry, suggesting that Gore was “trying to allege that I’m a hard-hearted person.” To which Gore replied with sham earnestness, “I think he’s a good person. I make no allegations about that. … It’s a question of priorities and values.” Praising your opponent’s character while questioning his “values”—that’s a stunt right out of the playbook of Bush’s father.
Fifth, by removing himself as a target, Gore left Bush to absorb the next round of scrutiny. Bush gained ground last week because all the post-debate attention was on Gore. With Gore’s misstatements and abrasive demeanor out of the way, Bush’s foibles now assume greater prominence. His clumsy locutions are old news, but in this debate, he displayed a few new tics. He repeatedly shuffled and glanced down at his notes, a motion that looked quite conspicuous in the seated format. He sniffled and crinkled his lips like a schoolboy. Worst of all, the Bush swivel replaced the Gore sigh. While Gore sat forward attentively, Bush sprawled back in his chair, pivoting incessantly. This distracted the viewer and—subliminally, at least—made Bush look lazy and fidgety at the same time.
The point isn’t that Gore won the debate. The point is that, as last week’s debate showed, the candidate who “wins” the debate, even in the instant polls, doesn’t necessarily help himself the most. The key isn’t to score the most points or to dominate your opponent, but to deliver the performance that best fits the larger strategic context, leaving the most salutary and lasting impression in precisely those areas where your candidacy most needs help. Bush did that last night. So did Gore.