Al Gore is running for the wrong office. So often did he talk about “fighting” during his debate with George W. Bush Tuesday that he appeared to be running for boxer-in-chief. One halfway expected him to invite Mr. Bush to take their disagreements outside to settle them, except that that might have kept Mr. Gore from taking on other comers at the same time.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers, health maintenance organizations, insurance companies, the “wealthy” and even moderator Jim Lehrer all found themselves in a clinch with Mr. Gore at one time or another. At least three times Mr. Lehrer had to stop the vice president from going over his allotted debate time or from posing questions to audience members and Mr. Bush that violated the debate format to which he himself had agreed. When Mr. Gore tried to extend a discussion on health care, Mr. Lehrer interrupted to say, “Just a minute, Mr. Vice President … the way the rules go here now … I’ll decide whether we go on.” When Mr. Gore asked a question of an audience member, Mr. Lehrer had to intrude again, saying, “That’s a violation of your rule, Vice President Gore.”
For the most part, however, Mr. Gore contented himself with fighting big companies that weren’t around to defend themselves. “If you want someone who will fight for you and who will fight for the middle-class families and working men and women who are sick and tired of having their parents and grandparents pay higher prices for prescription drugs than anybody else,” he said, “then I want to fight for you … Listen, for 24 years I have never been afraid to take on the big drug companies.”
There was an awkward moment when Mr. Gore abruptly remembered that Big Drugs had actually provided some useful service to consumers by inventing one of the few things that he hadn’t gotten around to inventing himself life-saving drugs. But having acknowledged this contribution in passing, he returned to pummeling the industry for spending more money on advertising and promotion than on research and development. The premise of the vice president’s attack is that drug companies shouldn’t be allowed to defend themselves in the media against such attacks. As it turned out, though, the companies don’t spend more on advertising than on research and development anyway.
Mr. Gore also came out swinging against parents, although he naturally didn’t put it that way. Asked a question about how one holds accountable parents as well as teachers for educational progress, Mr. Bush argued for vouchers that would allow parents to remove children from failing schools and send them elsewhere or arrange for tutoring. It’s a sound argument. How can one hold parents accountable for their children’s learning when they don’t even have a choice of where to send them? Vouchers would give them the financial means to send their children to private schools if they think it’s necessary.
Mr. Gore denounced vouchers for the usual reasons, among them that they would drain government schools of money. One would think that protecting the existing education cartel and the teachers unions that profit from it was more important than rescuing children from what Mr. Bush has rightly called an “education recession.” But in a surreal moment, Mr. Gore said vouchers wouldn’t be necessary because, in part, “most schools are excellent.” Evidently they aren’t so excellent that the vice president was willing to pull his children from private schools and send them back to government schools.
Ironically, the very next question from the debate audience came from a school teacher who had a rather different take on the “excellence” of the nation’s schools: “Mr. Vice President, in the school district in which I work, and in countless others across the nation, we face crumbling school buildings, increased school violence, student apathy, overcrowding, lack of funding, lawsuits, the list goes on.” Mr. Gore then had to offer solutions to a widespread problem which, to judge from his previous answer, he didn’t think existed.
Mr. Gore also tried to score points by jabbing a familiar Democratic Party target, the rich, asserting that they would be the primary beneficiaries of Mr. Bush’s proposed tax cut. It’s a strategy that might have made political sense, say, 60 or 70 years ago. But with more and more people measuring their financial well-being through quarterly 401-k statements these days, this brand of class warfare sounds quaint at best. Most people are doing their best to join the ranks of the rich, not fight them.
Mr. Bush spent most of the evening parrying Mr. Gore with the now-familiar argument that he wasn’t planning on coming to Washington to fight with anyone, but to pursue an agenda by bringing partisans on both sides of the aisle together. By Washington standards, it is a painfully polite and, at times, less-than-inspiring vision. But for eight years the Clinton-Gore administration has tried a more combative approach with little to show for it other than welfare reform and, possibly, Mr. Clinton’s license to practice law. More of the same may yet lead to a Gore knockout, but he may be the one who winds up on the canvas.