- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2000

I am writing this column just minutes after the decisive, most important event of the campaign the first presidential debate of this, the 43rd Olympiad, eh, excuse me, presidential campaign.

Viewed as a sporting event, it wouldn't have been viewed much. Except for partisans, who were holding their breath when they weren't muttering under it, the debate was slightly less exciting than synchronized swimming. Viewed as a debate, it wasn't one. The rules did not permit the two debaters to address each other (Al Gore only broke that rule once.) And, as a political high moment, it was indecisive. Although I haven't seen any polls, it is hard to imagine that the debate moved many voters. So, the winner was George W. Bush.

Mr. Gore, the world's most formidable debater (hereinafter: TWMFD), lost his best chance to blow the election wide open. For W to hold his ground for 90 minutes against TWMFD was the answer to every Republican's Sunday prayer. I know, from personal experience and conversations, that last Sunday many Republicans forewent our usual prayer for the children of the world and small, defenseless furry animals, and instead prayed that W would survive his encounter with TWMFD. That he survived it without working up a sweat, suggests that we of little faith in W's debating skills need not have begged for divine assistance. By golly, W can take care of himself.

In fact, it was TWMFD who looked a little sweaty and uncomfortable. In those few moments when he wasn't droning on with an orotund loquacity that must have been driving viewers around the globe to the refrigerator, or the medicine cabinet, TWMFD's facial mugging to the camera disclosed a feigned indignation at W's comments. But there was something else in his face: a genuine incredulity that he might actually be losing the debate to W.

One could see it not only in his expression, but in his constant uncontrollable urge to get in a few more words (in regular violation of the rules of the debate). W never said, "There you go again" he never had to. Even the ever even-tempered and too pliable moderator, Jim Lehrer, looked just a little exasperated as Mr. Gore repeatedly usurped time that wasn't his to repeat his prior talking points.

The debate got off to a predictable beginning when, as I timed it, it took TWMFD about 3.5 seconds to get to his first lie. Mr. Lehrer asked TWMFD to explain what he meant when he said that W didn't have the experience to be president. TWMFD immediately explained that he had never questioned W's experience, it was just that W's policies were wrong. TWMFD then went into his canned opening statement, in which he praised himself for being on the side of the voters on all issues.

Mr. Lehrer followed up that answer with the chastising question: "So, when you were quoted in the New York Times saying Gov. Bush didn't have the experience to be president, you meant you disagreed with his policies?" Mr. Gore quietly concurred and took another opportunity loudly to deliver his canned opening statement.

Mr. Lehrer's first question to W asked him to explain why he had in the past said that Mr. Gore had not provided leadership. Mr. Bush gave a typically straightforward answer that in 1992 Mr. Gore said he was going to provide prescription drugs to the elderly and fix Social Security and Medicare. He said it again in 1996. Now he is saying it yet again. TWMFD failed in eight years to provide leadership to get the job done. So W asked the public to give him a chance to do it.

W's answer was eerily reminiscent of Clinton/Gore's 1992 taunt at President Bush: "If you don't want to use the presidency, [let me use it to help the people]." Whether this was sweet revenge or coincidence one can't know, but it was W's most powerful argument for changing regimes. However, if there was a weakness in W's performance it was in making the emotional case for change. It is true that W made clear and logical cases for his policy over TWMFD in energy, education, taxes, and Social Security. He held his own on prescription drugs and Medicare reforms. And on foreign policy he was just able to articulate the Colin Powell/Casper Weinberger policy for use of military force. Staying up with TWMFD is no small thing.

Like Jack Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, W has now passed the stature test. But in 1960 the economy was anemic, and in 1980 everything from Iran and Afghanistan to energy shortages, stagflation and mortgage rates were bad. Passing the stature test under those circumstances was sufficient to elect Ronald Reagan and JFK. But in the ebullient times in which we live, Mr. Bush will need more than presidential stature.

In the remaining debates, Mr. Bush needs to build on his success, by making an ever more powerful emotional case that it is time for them to go. TWMFD has been cut down to size. It remains for him to be defenestrated.



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