- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2000

If Al Gore had George W. Bush's pleasing personality and affable disposition, this election would be over by now. Had George W. Bush entered the race as nationally well-known as previous out-party challengers (Ike in 1952, Nixon in 1968, or Ronald Reagan in 1980) he would have closed this sale long before the last presidential debate.
That neither situation is the case explains the closeness in this year's presidential race, and why so many voters, if the polls are accurate, will not break one way or the other until the campaign's waning days. Through a combination of circumstance and persona, that should work to Mr. Bush's favor.
Ordinarily, during times of peace and a robust economy and when, for reasons known only to them, the American people give the two-term and retiring president of the United States high approval ratings, the identity of the next president would be a foregone conclusion.
When Mr. Gore entered the race last year, he occupied ground comparable to that held by four previously "anointed" heirs to departing popular presidents in good times: Martin Van Buren (who followed "Old Hickory" in 1836), William Howard Taft ("The Rough Rider" in 1908), Herbert Hoover ("Silent Cal" in 1928), and George Bush in 1988. Then, as they used to say on Broadway, "a couple of things happened on the way to the theater."
Outbreaks of violence in the Middle East and renewed terrorist attacks against American sailors made a seemingly peaceful world suddenly less tranquil. Jitters in the stock market brought back into public consciousness the essential truth that administrations, Congresses, and even Federal Reserve Board chairmen cannot repeal "business cycles." All told, Mr. Gore's strongest assets appear less secure. Then there were the debates. None of the representatives of the "in" party mentioned above had to endure the media extravaganzas spiked with bureaucratic intrigue and with campaign-induced hyperventilation that mistakenly go by that name.
Thanks to formats that did not allow for serious exchanges on issues, a moderator unwilling or unable to enforce the rules, and a dearth of "hot button" questions, the debates shed little insight into what either man would actually do once elected. They did serve as occasions for candidates to offer glimpses of the attitudes either would carry into the presidency.
That is all to the good, as issues and circumstances change often many times during the course of administrations. Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson, history reminds us, set out to be domestic reformers and ended up embroiled in bitter international disputes of their own making.
It also transcends the question of whether success in debates portends success in office. Does anyone doubt that had the folksy, often inarticulate, Dwight Eisenhower debated the eloquent Adlai E. Stevenson in 1952 or 1956, Stevenson would have won hands down? Yet, Adlai the egghead was known for his Hamlet-like indecisiveness and Ike for methodical staff work and the planning he displayed during the Normandy invasion and during the depths of the Cold War. As pundits were quick to point out, audiences saw three different Al Gores (the signing interrupter, the self-gagged detainee, and the attack dog) and one (warts and all) George W. Bush. For voters who value constancy in a president, especially in uncertain times and there seem to be many of them it was Mr. Bush in a walk.
Mr. Bush's main challenge going into the debates was to establish a high "comfort level" with his audience. This he did less through what he said than through his overall comportment. Early in the third debate, when he gestured a willingness to lend his reading glasses to a middle-age woman who encountered difficulty reading her question, Mr. Bush established a commonality with all aging baby boomers. Repeatedly, he turned his lack of Washington experience to an advantage, arguing that he could get things done and was more interested in basic principles than in the specifics of certain bills and congressional maneuvering. He took a question about the death penalty as the occasion to counter suggestions that he does approach the issue with appropriate seriousness. Mr. Bush showed himself confident enough to concede that the "vice president was correct" when he said that farmers helped preserve the environment.
Viewers were left to ponder why Mr. Bush did not bring up Buddhist Temples, Lincoln bedroom stayovers, and foreign contributions after his opponent droned on about campaign-finance reform or why he made no reference to Bill Clinton's behavior in response to a question about declining public morality. A format more conducive to real exchanges would have allowed time to examine whether Mr. Bush's desire not to use food as a means of diplomacy means he is prepared to lift sanctions against Cuba and Iraq.
Absent, too, was any probing of whether Mr. Bush's approach to affirmative action (guaranteed admission to Texas colleges of the top 10 percent of graduates of all high schools) is itself a quota, albeit not one based on race or what meaning such rankings have in a failing school.
Still, for those searching for differences between the candidates, the debates were a useful vehicle. Mr. Gore came across convinced of the need for big government, confident in its abilities to solve problems, and willing to use it to induce behavior of which he approves. Mr. Bush showed himself more skeptical of government's potential, more willing to place his faith in the power of the private sector, technology and citizens. Mr. Gore, in his "you ain't seen nothing yet" closing, took greater pains to evoke memories of Ronald Reagan, but it was Mr. Bush who appeared more Reaganesque. That was the message that emerged after a grueling four-and-a-half hours of talk.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he directs the Mandate for Leadership 2000 Project.

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