If just by showing up and not making a fool of himself in the first debate, George W. Bush pulled ahead of Al Gore, what will happen now that Mr. Bush clearly won one?
Conventional wisdom held that George W. needed only to prove that he was up to the job to swing the race his way. If so, his performance in Debate I barely met that threshold. He offered reasonably good answers on Social Security and Medicare, but otherwise seemed blindsided by Mr. Gore’s relentless and repetitive attacks.
In Debate II though, the guy who wasn’t supposed to be able to find Greece on a map mopped the floor with super-debater Al Gore. Bush was confident, knowledgeable, gracious and altogether “presidential.” On issue after issue, Mr. Gore found himself scrambling to agree with Mr. Bush, as the governor easily dropped names like Chernomyrdin and East Timor.
Occasionally, Mr. Bush was too subtle, saying for example, that in negotiations with the parties to the Middle East conflict “it’ll be on the timetable that people [there] are comfortable with.” He might have drawn the contrast with Bill Clinton’s timetable a bit more directly. In discussing the intervention in Somalia, he said “the mission changed” meaning that the Clinton administration altered the policy his father had initiated. But this was probably lost on most viewers.
Mr. Gore clearly assumed he had Mr. Bush at a disadvantage early in the debate when he broke one of the ground rules and asked Mr. Bush a question. “In some of the discussions we’ve had about when it’s appropriate to use force, at times the standards that you’ve laid down have given me the impression that if it’s if it’s something like a genocide taking place … that that alone would not be the kind of situation that would cause you to think that the U.S. ought to, to get involved with troops.”
In response, and throughout the rest of the conversation about foreign policy, Mr. Bush reiterated that the U.S. military is not a social service organization. Its purpose is to fight and win wars. And we should go to war only when our vital interests are at stake.
Before long, Mr. Gore found himself saying much the same thing. When asked about Rwanda (a nation that experienced genocide while the Clinton administration chose not to act), Mr. Gore said only that we ought to have been quicker delivering humanitarian aid to the survivors, not that we should have intervened to stop the killing.
Later, Mr. Gore offered a defense of “nation building”; saying that between the First and Second World Wars, we “kind of turned our backs and left them to their own devices and they brewed up a lot of trouble and that quickly became World War II.” Mr. Bush countered that something else we did between the wars might have had an effect as well: “We let our military atrophy.”
After Mr. Bush criticized the International Monetary Fund, Mr. Gore played catch up. And the vice president had no response when Mr. Bush pointed out that the $2 billion or so we spent installing one dictator over another in Haiti was hardly a worthwhile mission.
Did Mr. Bush praise the Clinton administration a bit too much? Sure. But it succeeded in further disarming an opponent who had already partially defanged himself. (Worried about seeming a bully, Mr. Gore was trying so, so hard to be pleasant.)
If Mr. Gore landed a punch, it was when he challenged Mr. Bush’s record in Texas. Mr. Bush ought to have been better prepared for this (note for next time). Mr. Gore’s critique can hardly be taken at face value though. For example, many of the children who swell the ranks of the uninsured in Texas are actually illegal aliens. As Mr. Bush noted, Texas spends billions caring for these children being without insurance is not the same thing as going without care.
Mr. Bush styles himself a compassionate conservative, but he did not succumb to the “niceness” temptation (unlike Jack Kemp in 1996). When asked whether Mr. Gore’s exaggerations were a problem, he said yes, and in the course of explaining why, deftly added a few more whoppers to the list Jim Lehrer had provided. He closed the deal by noting that Mr. Gore’s exaggerations about his tax plan were the latest example.
Game and set to Mr. Bush. Match?