With all his strutting, braying, and interrupting last night, Al Gore did everything he could — short of peeing on the platform — to assert his territorial dominance. At one point it looked like the vice president wanted to bounce chests with the Texas governor (see “Debate Fantasy“). But Bush won, marginally on points, overwhelmingly on strategy. This despite the fact that all three debates were as barren as RuPaul’s womb when it came to conservative questions and issues. Every single question revolved around “what can you do for me” entreaties from liberal constituencies. How many undecided teachers are there in Missouri anyway? It seems like Gallup just rounded them all up. Save for Chris Matthews and the gang over at Fox, just about everybody missed this obvious point. Which just shows what most people think the government is for and what elections are about.
Anyway, that said, both guys had their best nights yet. Sometimes Bush seemed like he should have taken an extra dose of bee pollen and espresso, but generally he was in the zone. The conventional wisdom — i.e. what Jonathan Alter said this morning on MSNBC — holds that Gore “won” because he reached a “happy medium,” according to Alter, between the condescending jerk of the first debate and the seemingly chemically castrated Gore of the second debate. Now one question: since when does the middle position between condescending jerk and “thank you sir, may I have another?” narcoleptic describe the kind of guy we want in the Oval Office?
Indeed, what had me laughing the most during the pre-game spin was the extent to which Democrats were trying to turn Gore’s annoying traits into assets. I swear I heard Mario Cuomo ask something like, “don’t we want our president to be a little condescending?” Talk about defining deviancy down. Then again, Cuomo has a vested interest in creating a ground swell of demand for pompous and overbearing paleo-liberals.
Whether Gore actually found that happy medium or whether the media was just happy that their guy didn’t blow it, it is impossible to tell at this point. Indeed, I am loath to make predictions about how voters will respond to debates. After all, I’m still trying to figure out why Hillary Clinton wasn’t forced to run down Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral requesting sanctuary from the mob a long time ago.
That said, it is pretty stunning how George Bush beat the street, as it were. Going into this election, virtually every sage and sober PBS prognosticator and MSNBC mufti assured the world that Gore would destroy Bush in the debates. Indeed, it was suggested that Gore could erase any deficit in the polls at the debates. And look what happened. Bush won them all in every way that matters.
Okay, okay, before people say Gore won the first debate on the issues or on points — or the second debate or even the third debate — hear me out. You are morons.
Okay maybe not morons, but you certainly miss the point about what debates are for. Viewers do not “score” debates on who won what point. Viewers take the measure of the men in them. And, while undecided voters might like one of the three Al Gore’s they saw throughout the debates, the simple math of it is that the average of the three comes in well below the single George Bush who has showed up at every debate.
Even more interesting was how Bush forced Gore into this situation — and I’m not talking about the ludicrous idea of a “truth trap” that the media has concocted. By succeeding at making the philosophical question of this election big government versus small government, Bush transforms Gore’s promises to solve every problem in the world into to just a bunch of federal programs and entitlements. By making the chief character question of this campaign “credibility,” the Bushies have diminished the likelihood that voters will even believe Gore’s promises anyway — even if they like the ideas behind them. And by bundling all of this in Gore’s arrogant personality he’s forced Gore to reinvent himself three times in three debates, feeding those other dynamics. For example, when Bush scores Gore on “picking winners and losers” with his tax plan it makes it sound like Gore is both pandering and condescending.
If Bush is able to keep the choice in this year’s election between: big government v. smaller government, trustworthy v. untrustworthy, the guy you want to have beers with v. the guy you’d better have your Latin homework into on time, then this election may well be in the bag. Then again, maybe not.