Ballot Box

They Stand Corrected

Winston-Salem, N.C.–Usually it’s George W. Bush who reads his stage directions aloud. But at the start of tonight’s debate, it was Al Gore who seemed to be wearing his instruction manual on his sleeve. Responding to Jim Lehrer’s first question about his “guiding principles” for exercising the vast power of the presidency, Gore tripped over the word “national,” rendering it first as “natural.” Then he said that people around the world see America as a model of what the future could be like. “And I don’t think that’s just the kind of exaggeration that we take pride in,” he added.

It hardly requires a deep Freudian reading of this answer to construe Gore’s words as a glimpse of what was really on his mind coming into the debate: that it’s perfectly natural to exaggerate a bit out of pride. And if that wasn’t enough, Gore did it again in his answer to Lehrer’s second question about how the United States should project power abroad. “I think that the idea of humility is an important one,” he said.

Gore corrected last week’s widely criticized performance in all of the obvious ways. He did not sigh in a theatrical fashion (though he did release one exasperated snort in response to Bush’s assertion that our European allies should take over our peacekeeping role in the Balkans). His tone was much calmer, less combative, and pointedly modest. His face was not painted the color of a carrot. But the vice president’s personality transplant came at a price.

One price was that the difference between the Gore of last week and the Gore of this week was so striking that it’s bound to revive the charge that he perpetually reinvents himself. All that geniality and humility–“I don’t know … that I know, anyway … I’m no expert”–sounded forced and false. At the end of the debate, when Lehrer raised the fiblet problem, Gore first gave a convincingly contrite answer. “I can’t promise you that I will never get another detail wrong,” he said. “I can promise you that I will try not to and hard. … I’ll work my heart out to get the big things right for the American people.” But then the mask slipped. Charged by his opponent with exaggerating his claims about Bush’s tax cut, Gore came back with a nasty quip. “Well, I wasn’t the one having trouble explaining it,” he said. The moment brought back the old Al Gore of last week, making his 85 minutes of self-restraint seem like an entirely disingenuous effort.

Even more damaging to Gore’s performance was the way his enforced self-discipline kept him from clobbering Bush on points the way he did last week. Gore did have a few good moments taking Bush to task for his Texas record on the environment, guns, and health insurance for children. But for the entire first hour, Gore was like a pit bull with a muzzle on, prevented from doing that for which he was bred. Having imbibed the conventional wisdom that he’s too mean, he overcompensated in his usual tone-deaf manner by being far too measured. Couching his criticisms of Bush in an artificial, aw-shucks manner deprived them of an edge. He came across as cowed, not confident.

Bush, too, set out to correct his mistakes and did a more convincing job of it, I thought. The governor pretty clearly did the homework he blew off last time, socking away nuggets from Conde Rice’s emergency briefings and regurgitating them at the proper moments. He knew that our military had trained Nigerian troops to perform a peacekeeping mission in Rwanda and that Australia had done the job in East Timor with logistical support from the United States. Bush’s overall point seemed to be that his foreign policy wouldn’t be wildly different from the Clinton administration’s. Gore, surprisingly, did little to rebut the claim.

At times, Bush’s effort to sound intelligent and well-informed seemed strained the way the vice president’s attempt to be affable did. Especially on foreign policy, which occupied the entire first half of the debate, the governor sounded like a college student who had crammed mightily for an exam. But he clearly passed, even if he didn’t win any special honors.

Does this mean David beat Goliath in the second debate? Graded on improvement, he surely did. And based on degree of difficulty, I’d say Bush was the victor as well. Giving more or less intelligent answers for an evening the way Bush did means that at some level, you aren’t stupid–although you may still be lazy. On the other hand, being civil and accurate for an evening the way Gore was doesn’t mean you’re kind or honest. Bush and Gore performed more or less equally well on most of the substantive issues that came up. But at Wake Forest University, the governor cleared the higher bar.