Round Two: Is There a "There" There?

Gregory Dunn

October 1, 2000

Round Two: The big question was, would Gore repeat last week’s haughty and swaggering performance? Would he sneer and snort and sigh his way through the second debate?

He would not. Last night, Gore was a chastened man, serious without the condescension and respectful without the pandering. Apparently, Gore was coached all week by a Shakespearean actor, softening his style—perhaps playing the role of Cassius in Julius Caesar? “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er, / in states unborn, and accents yet unknown!” (Perhaps too much to hope for.)

And Bush, who last week couldn’t pronounce the name of the (since-ejected) Serbian President Milosovich, is now tossing out the names of first- and second-tier world leaders like they are his former drinking buddies. Did Bush’s father dust off the World Leader Flashcards he used with Dan Quayle? Has Colin Powell been following Bush around with a world globe and a laser pointer? Late night cram sessions at the National Geographic headquarters? Whatever it was, Bush needs to keep it up; he looked confident and competent in foreign affairs, one of his weaker areas in the first debate.

Further, Bush in some ways is proving to be a perfect amalgamation of some of the past half-century’s Republican presidents, combining the vague gestures of his father and the grace of Ford with the syntax of Eisenhower.
Bush’s rhetoric swirls. It pirouettes. His nouns and verbs stumble over each other in increasingly rococo constructions. Sometimes they even make a point, and we cheer when they do, if only for the relief of it.

When Bush’s comments did hit home, they pretty clearly distinguished the fundamental differences between his and Gore’s views of the federal government’s role, continuing the conversation prompted by Jim Leher’s excellent question the week prior: “Should the voters of this election … see this … as a major choice between competing political philosophies?” You will remember that there were, indeed, differences.

Both last week and last night, Gore showed himself to be not a so-called New Democrat but an old-school liberal, offering a laundry list of new federal programs and prerogatives that promise greater governmental involvement in Americans’ lives. Bush showed himself to be a man who intuits the American Founders’ principle of an energetic yet limited federal government. His philosophy was simple and straightforward: to give Americans the freedom to make their own decisions, apart from undue federal meddling.

This week’s more focused discussions on foreign and domestic policy continued to refine this difference. Contrast, for example, Bush’s call for medical savings accounts with Gore’s for national healthcare. Contrast Gore’s commitment to increased federal environmental regulation with Bush’s to local control and local solutions. Finally, contrast Gore’s dedication to “nation-building” and the global American military presence it entails with Bush’s caution that such intervention in the affairs of other nations not only aggravates the stereotype of the arrogant and ugly American but also violates those nations’ sovereignty.

But sometimes Bush didn’t hit home, only skirted and flanked his main points. For example, he had to take a number of false starts at the dubious justice of nation-building before he could make his strike. Gore, in contrast, seems to think in paragraphs with ready-made theses and conclusions; he is, at the end of the day, the more sophisticated debater. Moreover, Bush still is too flat-footed when responding to Gore’s challenges. In debates, Bush curiously refuses to rebut Gore’s droning mantra of the wealthiest of the wealthy” (interestingly changed from last week’s “the wealthiest 1 percent”). More damaging, Bush only haltingly replied to Gore’s attacks on his governing record in Texas. Such attacks will only increase as the campaign wears on. Bush must compensate for his round-about talking style by driving home the core of his message
and addressing Gore’s criticisms clearly, forcefully, and—dare we say it after last night’s mutual admiration session—aggressively.

Finally, I repeat that Gore was a chastened, and changed, man. In truth, it would be more precise to say that Gore was a completely different man. This is the most troubling feature of last night¹s debate.
One senses that, throughout his campaign, Bush has been who he is. But what of this chameleon, Gore? How can a man be one thing one day and such a different thing the next? This shape-shifting is more than a little troubling; one wonders if Gore is not simply Bill Clinton without the charm. Put another way, if Gore were asked to be himself, would he know who that is? Appropriating Gertrude Stein, is there a “there” there for Gore? In the final weeks of the closest presidential campaign in recent memory, this is the crucial question.

Gregory Dunn is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.