Vitality missing in Clinton-Dole debate

Throughout the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton attempted to craft his image into that of his political idol, John F. Kennedy. While President Clinton moved away from that strategy this year, in Sunday’s debate his opponent, former senator Bob Dole, accidentally adopted the persona of another former president: Richard Nixon.
With Dole far behind in the polls and the election taking second billing to foreign affairs in the press, the debate represented a chance for Dole to capture the spotlight and revitalize his campaign. Instead, the Republican challenger appeared uncomfortable and unable to clearly articulate his positions.
The remarkably successful Republican campaign strategy of the past 17 years concentrated on clearly labeling the opposition as liberal, creating the image of benevolent Republican leadership and on focusing rhetoric on the evils of big government. Using attempts at humor, allusions to some of Reagan’s famous phrases and references to Clinton’s “liberal” record, Dole demonstrated his familiarity with the Republican’s tried-and-true techniques. But Dole doesn’t possess Reagan’s grandfatherly charm, and it shows.
Much like Nixon’s infamous debate performance during the 1960 campaign, the problem came in the delivery. Many of Dole’s responses were unfocused, hesitant and pessimistic. He presents himself as a “plain-speaking man from the plains,” yet his responses moved away from the questions posed and presented rambling commentary on unrelated issues. Vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp’s commentary after the debate was sharper, clearer and much closer to the “plainspeak” on which Dole prides himself.
Dole did manage to keep his famous nasty streak in check and deserves credit for avoiding personal attacks, despite ample opportunity offered by moderator Jim Lehrer. Throughout the debate it was obvious that the candidates have a genuine respect for each other despite radically different visions of the country’s current state.
For Clinton, the debate was an opportunity to defend his administration and show that his plan for the nation is working. The president largely lived up to his reputation as a master campaigner and managed to project an image of being more in control and knowledgeable than Dole for most of the debate. Unfortunately, Clinton committed the same error as Dole by using repetitive phrases and positions.
The strongest aspect of the debate was its welcome discussion of hard issues like education, foreign policy, the budget, the role of the federal government and campaign finance reform. In relying on canned, repetitive comments Clinton and Dole overlooked many salient topics. Abortion, women’s issues, affirmative action, urban issues and welfare/workfare were all absent from the discussion.
The candidates deserve credit for remaining focused on campaign issues and avoiding the name-calling that has marked recent debates, but Sunday’s performance lacked vitality. With responses that offered no more information than a sound bite, there was little substantive new information for voters.