In a way, the major challenge of the two participants in last night's debate was to avoid getting into one. Al Gore's job was to avoid coming across as mean and condescending, his traditional means of debating being to crack open and disembowel his opponent as thoroughly and dispassionately as a man eating a lobster. George W. Bush's job his expectations having been skillfully, almost insultingly downplayed by his staff was to pronounce words correctly and avoid drooling on himself.
So you would think the winning strategy for both men would be simply to clamp their mouths shut for 90 minutes. And in a sense that's what they did for most of the session playing for a tie, clamping down on their personalities and tempers and sticking to carefully packaged speeches and sets of numbers. Hell, their outfits didn't even conflict both men wore near-identical dark suits and red ties.
The debaters were helped in their caution by the provocatively unprovocative questioning of Jim Lehrer, the PBS news anchor who put the "moderate" in "moderator." After unsuccessfully inviting both candidates to attack each other Gore on Bush's experience, Bush on Gore's leadership he studiously avoided the sort of explosive, what-if-your-wife-was-raped-and-murdered questions that might have threatened to make the debate interesting. With few exceptions, his questions all but invited lengthy recitations of prepared talking points.
You could say, of course, that this was a good thing, because the candidates generally engaged the country on the issues rather than personal attacks. But really they gave us boilerplate, heavily dressed up with slogans and selective statistics. Both men took advantage of Lehrer's laissez-faire style to ramble on well beyond the time limits. Gore in particular seized rebuttal after rebuttal, though for all his jockeying for time, he conspicuously avoided trying to go medieval on the governor. The problem is, it's not clear Gore knows how to do anything else; in his first responses, he seemed uncomfortable and awkward. Eventually, he seemed to settle into a more comfortable compromise mode attacking Bush's policies with a flurry of statistics while trying not to slip into condescension.
He came close at times, however. Talking about the Serbian election, Gore pointedly named Milosevic's opponent not once but twice it was probably all he could do to avoid spelling the name and describing the family's coat of arms. Whereas you could almost see Dubya, clearly less comfortable here than on education policy, jotting down "mil-OH-se-vitch" on his note cards to avoid a pronunciation blunder. And even a toned-down Gore could not suppress his gift for the weaselly debate move: though both men agreed on rules forbidding them to question one another, Gore bald-facedly wiggled around them with locutions such as "I would be interested to see" if Bush would pledge that night to put Medicare into a "lockbox." (A phrase Gore must have used a hundred times in the night. Where is this lockbox? How big is it? Does it have a deadbolt or one of those flimsy combination locks?)
Bush, on the other hand, seemed to do the better job of managing his body language, coming across relaxed and easy without looking dazed, only occasionally straightening into the schoolboy-reciting-a-poem posture he seems to have decided appears presidential. He also avoided any of the "subliminable"-style malapropisms that the press corps were praying for. (Though on his favorite subject, education, he did trip up on the name of the education group Teach for America, talking about supporting "Teach for the... Teach for the Children-type teachers.")
Bush was also prepared with the better freeze-dried lines, though both candidates passed up openings for coups de grace. And both trotted out one-liners that probably sounded great in the practice debates but tanked here, such as Bush on Gore's statistics: "This is a man who's got great numbers. I'm beginning to think that not only did he invent the Internet, he invented the calculator." It may have tickled Karl Rove back in Austin, but it didn't fly in Boston.
Both candidates, though enjoined from bringing props, hauled out human props galore. Gore pointed to a man from Wisconsin who goes to Canada to fill his prescriptions. Bush pulled out a name of a family to pitch for his tax cuts. Gore countered with the name of a girl forced to stand in her underfunded school because there wasn't enough room in her class for another desk. When did it become a requirement that the chief executive personally know as many constituents as possible? Frankly, I'd just as soon the head of the executive branch of government didn't know my name, thank you very much.
Both candidates, too, gave feeble answers to the question of how they would deal with the unexpected. Gore gave a dry response about the former Yugoslavia before launching into a lengthy prepared stump speech. Bush recalled, unmovingly, that he put his arms around and cried with a Texas disaster victim. Gore, shamelessly, noted that he too had been in Texas then with the manager of FEMA. You practically expected him to pull out a fact sheet noting that he had in fact cried 19 cc's of tears compared with Bush's 13 cc's. Say what you will about Bill Clinton: If he had given that disaster-victim answer, he'd have had you crying harder than "Bang the Drum Slowly."
Who won? Here's a suitably ass-covering journalistic non-answer. By holding up in the exchange, coming across at ease and on top of his material, Bush succeeded at his modest goals. But Gore too may have enjoyed a weird sort of pre-spun success. His reputation as the Termindebator set up expectations that anything short of killing Bush and eating his children on national TV was a loss. But when his team announced their counterspin that his challenge would be not to be nasty and aggressive it left the press looking to see not how crushing his arguments were, but how non-crushing they were. Which meant, perversely, that by not winning the debate, he would win.
In any event, the clear losers were those of us praying for a good old-fashioned throw-down. But this was the caution of opponents in a tight race; if the polls move at all in the next few days, someone's going to come into the next debate with incentive to rhumba. Bush gave us a preview late, raising the character issue with a zinger about the Clinton-Gore team moving the sign "the buck stops here" from the Oval Office to the Lincoln Bedroom, and even hauling out the Buddhist temple scandal.
Of course, it played straight into a canned response from Gore, who treated a charge about his activities in running a national election as though Bush had called his mother a call girl. "I think we should attack our country's problems and not attack each other... You have attacked my character and credibility." You could see him writing the headline in his head: "DESPERATE BUSH GOES NUCLEAR."
Ah, we should be so lucky. Tune in next week.