Anyone who’s played tournament tennis knows how important it is to win your own service game and then break your opponent’s serve in order to capture the all-important first set. In other words, start fast, gain your form, and keep the momentum going.
Al Gore was able to do this in the first debate between the two major presidential candidates. And while George Bush had some very strong rallies later on, and indeed came off as Gore’s equal in stature, he was never able to really stop Gore’s early momentum.
In particular, on the crucial issues of economic prosperity and tax cuts, Gore came out of the box sounding the Clintonian themes of balanced budgets, targeted tax cuts and prosperity, prosperity, prosperity. While Bush countered with his well-founded argument that he would empower all taxpayers while Gore would expand government’s reach, I don’t think that Bush succeeded in connecting the dots between lower tax rates and the resulting economic growth.
This is a crucial point, because while Bush holds a narrow edge on the tax-cut issue according to the most accurate polls, Gore still holds a significant lead on the issue of economic management.
The veep hammered away relentlessly on tax cuts for the rich, and while the door was open for a Bush rebuttal of divisive class warfare, he never really made it. At one point, Gore asserted that Bush’s tax cuts would threaten the prosperity — at that very point, about a third of the way into the debate, Bush should have countered by arguing that across-the-board tax cuts would expand the economic pie, double the size of the gross domestic product in 15 years, throwing off a flood of tax revenues at the lower tax rates that would be funding Social Security and easing the transition to private retirement accounts.
Bush could have made the point that greater after-tax rewards and incentives to invest in new businesses are exactly the tonic necessary for the 21st-century economy–doubling the productivity rate and ensuring that two future workers will be as productive as three past workers. But he never really made these connections. He never really argued that Al Gore is interested in dividing up the pie according to Democratic-party interest groups, of course leaving the biggest chunk in government hands, while he, Bush, would expand the entire pie for the benefit of everyone. It’s an argument that Ronald Reagan made 20 years ago in his debate with Jimmy Carter. Bush never got there.
Bush did hammer away on the projection that $25 trillion in new revenues in the next ten years could surely fund a tax cut. And Bush did recoup some ground by continually arguing that he trusts people while Gore trusts government. And Bush did make the point that Gore’s $2.5 trillion in new spending would take us back to the Great Society, including the likelihood that 20,000 new government bureaucrats would find jobs.
But surprisingly Bush did not label Gore as an Old Democrat, nor did he hammer away at the wedge he began to talk about this past week on the campaign trail — that Gore was to the Left of New Democrat Clinton. When Gore later in the debate stated talking about defending the people against the powerful interests, and then repeating his usual litany of big oil, big insurance, big HMO’s, etc., etc., Bush had a great opening to assert that Al Gore favors jobs but opposes the very businesses that create jobs — yet he never made that point.
Elsewhere in the debate, Bush did quite well. Though Gore has a greater passion for the details of health care, Bush came close to holding his own when he argued repeatedly for greater choice. On education, Bush’s passion came through and I believe he won the issue. Not only with his emphasis on school choice and accountability, but in his very clear response to a Gore attack that only he favored yearly testing and accountability for teachers and school performance. Gore, of course, thinking of the national teachers union, dodged the issue.
Bush also came out a winner on Social Security, which is real breakthrough stuff both for his campaign and for the Republican party in general. The Texan repeatedly argued that young people will get a much higher investment rate of return by managing their own money and creating their own assets. Gore lamely attacked back by saying that one dollar out of six from the trust funds would be removed under Bush’s plan, but Bush quickly countered by noting the massive projected Social Security surpluses — and that his individual-investment-account plan merely returns some of the money to the workers who earned it in the first place.
I suspect that Bush scored heavily with young people, and this could be a big plus in the weeks ahead.
On energy, Bush clearly favored more production, while Gore fell back to his instinctive position that consumption must be limited. The problem was, Bush did not link his energy-production ideas to the general theme of expanding economic growth and enlarging the prosperity pie.
Neither man distinguished himself on the foreign-policy questions. More on this will undoubtedly come in the next two debates.
Bush unleashed a couple of zingers, calling Gore’s statistical attacks “fuzzy numbers,” and at one point saying that not only did Gore invent the Internet but he must have invented the calculator also. I’m not sure that was any more than a drop shot.
Gore, however, asserted that 30 percent of Bush’s tax cut would go to millionaires. This is untrue, and I hope the Bushies and independent observers will call Gore on it. The fact is, while the top 1 percent of income earners do pay slightly more than 30 percent of total tax revenues, and might therefore get that proportionate reduction in Bush’s plan (though I’d like to check the specific numbers), this top 1 percent group is not a millionaires’ club alone but extends down to the $250,000 income level.
In terms of meeting the expectations game, Bush showed that he was able to stand up to Gore and then some. The Texas governor got stronger as the debate wore on, and indeed appeared to be pulling away in the final 30 minutes. Whether that impression is sufficient to neutralize Gore’s early lead remains to be seen.
Bush’s closing remarks were excellent — again hitting on the theme that he trusts people while Gore trusts government — but he missed his final opportunity to link tax cuts to expanded economic growth. Bush did maintain a serious demeanor throughout, while Gore had some of the strangest facial contortions — with a mocking and sarcastic smile — and audibly loud sighs during Bush’s comments. Bush, on the other hand, played it medium cool. It’s hard to say how this one will be reviewed as the polling data rolls in. I’d probably have to give a split decision to Gore, by only a small margin.
But if George Bush can improve upon his economic-growth message, and reharness his tax-cut plan as the engine of future growth, he can win the next debates.
You know, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society spending truly wrecked the strong economy that resulted from John F. Kennedy’s across-the-board tax cuts. I wish George Bush would pull this page from history, and remind the American people about it.