Wearing almost matching dark suits and red ties, the two presidential candidates who are currently dominant in the polls argued, stumped and smirked Tuesday night during the first of three nationally televised debates. As was assumed, Vice President Al Gore delved deeply into policy details while Texas Gov. George W. Bush relied more on character and maintaining his own in front of the nation’s intimidating gaze. With the polls showing the candidates running within several points of one another, how voters react to their on-air politics, policies and pugnacious behavior will decide who will become the next president.
As arguably the tightest presidential race since 1960 — when John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon because of the former’s on-camera persona — who will win will likely rest on whether Americans believe the candidates’ words and proposals. Most voters, though, will probably not research whether the candidates’ plans will work. Mired in numbers, projections and widely differing interpretations, both Bush’s and Gore’s proposals are difficult to understand and forecast.
With the exception of the few Americans who will almost masochistically delve into Gore’s 197-page Economic Blueprint and other intricate policy proposals, voters will rely on either journalists or the opposition candidates to evaluate each presidential hopeful’s plans. The two questions to ask potential voters that would result in the most telling responses are: Whom do you believe? Whom do you trust?
The Vice President’s populist rhetoric of late is the primary contributor to his post convention bounce in the polls. With a similar understanding for how Americans vote, Bush has repeatedly attacked Gore’s integrity, hoping to align the Democratic nominee with his boss, Bill Clinton. Although only one question — near the debate’s end — concentrated on character, the issue permeated most of Bush’s words and many of Gore’s. This focus on character largely results from the candidates’ moderate ovations, which have limited the differences between the candidates.
Still, Bush is for limited government and more personal responsibility, while Gore advocates government involvement to insure fairness and equality. Unfortunately, the number of Americans watching the debate to see the minute differences was probably smaller than expected, as NBC decided to let its affiliates choose whether to air the program, and Fox did not air it at all. These poor corporate decisions meant that the event had lots of competition for viewers, including the first round of the National League playoffs.
Perhaps the debates would have drawn more interest from Americans if the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates had invited Green Party candidate Ralph Nader or Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan. As Bush and Gore said little beyond their usual stump remarks, the often innovative insights of third-party candidates would have spiced up the tedious but feisty debate. The debate commission’s requirement that candidates poll at least 15 percent to be part of the debates unfairly limits their chances and should be changed to reflect the greatly diversifying politics in America.
Although the pundits predominantly declared Gore the winner, the moderator, Jim Lehrer, was by far the most presidential of the three.