In this month’s first presidential debate, Al Gore tried to frame the issues but was overshadowed by his violations of the rules. Focus groups, pundits, and Saturday Night Live punished him for bullying moderator Jim Lehrer and speaking out of turn. In the second debate, Gore obeyed the rules, only to find that as a result, viewers and the media didn’t pick up the issue differences he had sought to emphasize. In the third debate, he finally managed to frame the differences without coming across merely as a debate scofflaw. Why? Because the physical structure of this debate—or more precisely, the lack of it—weakened the rules and freed Gore to impose a structure of his own.
In the first debate, Gore was confined to a podium. In the second, he was confined to a chair, unable to move anything but his hands. In the St. Louis debate, however, he was liberated to roam the stage. The minimal props—two stools from which the candidates were free to embark at any time—blurred the territorial boundaries. Gore exploited this spatial uncertainty by walking right up to Bush to unnerve him and challenge his first answer. If Gore had tried such a stunt in the podium debate, as Rick Lazio did against Hillary Clinton in the New York Senate race, he would have been roundly condemned, as Lazio was, for invading his opponent’s space. But in St. Louis, there were no spatial markers. Gore was able to define his space the way alpha males do in the animal kingdom: by asserting it. At times, Bush turned away or gravitated to the edge of the stage to escape the pressure.
Like the spatial constraints, the time constraints quickly dissolved. In the first debate, Lehrer occupied the umpire’s chair, perched between the candidates and the audience. In the second, Lehrer dominated the table, forcing Gore to obey the time rules religiously. But in the third, Lehrer lost his central position, and with it his authority. As Gore circled the stage, addressing the audience, he turned his back on Lehrer, leaving the moderator in the background. And as Gore advanced into Bush’s space, he built a physical drama between the candidates that reduced Lehrer to a spectator. Thus unleashed, Gore pressed Bush with follow-up questions and rebuttals that violated the rules. Lehrer tried to restore order but was physically out of position to do so. The impression created by the format was that the candidates, not the moderator, were in charge.
The audience assisted Gore tremendously in this stage coup. The central conceit of the debate was that these people, selected by Gallup pollsters to represent uncommitted voters, were the true masters of the evening. They asked the questions and sat onstage within feet of the candidates. In so doing, they further dissolved Lehrer’s authority by providing Gore with an alternative center of gravity. While Bush often pivoted nervously in the center of the circular stage, keeping Lehrer between himself and the audience, Gore patrolled the circumference, speaking to the questioners while Lehrer waited over his shoulder. When Lehrer reminded Gore that he wasn’t allowed to engage the questioners in colloquy—even by asking their occupations—the moderator looked ridiculous. He seemed to have no business separating the voters from their would-be representatives.
Liberated from the tyranny of form, Gore used his domination of space and time to impose a tyranny of content. When questioners didn’t bring up an issue Gore wanted to discuss, he brought it up on his own. When he needed extra time to hammer home his message on one issue, he stole that time from a question about something else. From hate crimes to Social Security privatization to Bush’s record on health care in Texas, Gore hijacked and dictated the agenda. Other than abortion, there wasn’t a single issue to his advantage that he didn’t find a way to work into the discussion.
Having defined the issues, Gore went on to define the differences. At every opportunity, he told the audience that he and Bush “disagreed” about the issue at hand, and he framed those disagreements to Bush’s disadvantage. Bush was for vouchers; Gore was against draining money from the public schools. Bush was against affirmative action; Gore was for equal opportunity. Bush was against McCain-Feingold; Gore was for it. The nuances and other aspects of Bush’s positions on these issues (school testing, “affirmative access,” and telling the truth in office) were obliterated. All that lingered were Gore’s brutal dilemmas: “[Bush] has promised a trillion dollars out of the Social Security trust fund for young working adults to invest … but he’s promised seniors that their Social Security benefits will not be cut. … Which one of those promises will you keep and which will you break, governor?”
The ultimate question of the evening, then, wasn’t which candidate won the contest of issues and which won the contest of character. By trampling the rules and controlling the agenda, Gore clearly won the first contest and lost the second. Evidently, his calculation was that at this stage of the race, he had to choose not only whether to spend money on ads in Ohio or in Florida, but also whether to spend the final debate shoring up his likeability or sacrificing it in order to thrash Bush on health care, education, and retirement security. He chose the latter course. Did it pay off? That’s the important question. Which contest did persuadable voters focus on last night? Did they care more about Gore’s flouting of the rules, or about his domination of Bush on the issues?
Focus groups assembled by the TV networks showed that Gore alienated many previously undecided voters. Some found his belligerence abrasive and indecent. Others excoriated him for ignoring questions and delivering rehearsed messages about his preferred issues instead. But many others, along with most TV commentators, were happy to hear differences between the candidates on the issues and judged Gore the winner by virtue of his more coherently and attractively stated positions. Several focus group participants basically said that although Gore rubbed them the wrong way, they would vote for him because Bush was less informed and wrong on the issues. And pundits, while acknowledging the contrast of personalities, shifted their emphasis to Bush’s Social Security dilemma and other issues Gore sought to revive.
The onstage audience helped Gore decisively in the struggle between the civility contest and the issues contest. While running roughshod over Lehrer, Gore appeared to be doing so in order to address issues the questioners cared about. He turned his back on Lehrer by facing the citizens. Each time Bush accused Gore of violating “the rules” with out-of-turn “attacks” and “debating tricks,” Gore invoked and addressed the audience to trump him. “This isn’t about Gov. Bush. It’s not about me. It is about you,” said Gore. Later, he shot down a Bush complaint by telling the questioners, “This election is not about debating tricks. It is about your future.” Had Gore stood alone with Bush, as in the first debate, his criticisms of Bush would have looked like a personal squabble irrelevant to the public. By physically engaging citizens onstage, however, Gore made these criticisms seem more real and relevant than Bush’s comforting but vague themes. For the first time, it seemed as though Gore wasn’t just fighting Bush. He was fighting for us.
Was this ruthless debating strategy unfair? Should a candidate be rewarded—with favorable reviews in the media and in overnight polls—for ignoring a debate’s rules in order to whip his opponent in the battle of issues? That’s not for the media to decide. It’s up to the candidate of civility to explain why civility is a more important standard for judging a presidential candidate than supremacy on the issues is. Bush tried that last night, arguing that his style was to solve problems through bipartisanship and that a candidate who doesn’t answer what he’s asked can’t be trusted to tell the truth as president. Bush may well be on the right side of that question. But Jim Lehrer isn’t going to settle it for him.