The Last Postgame Show

Steven Hayward

October 1, 2000

Unlike his dad eight years ago, George W. Bush didn’t look at his watch halfway through the debate, but I kept looking at mine, with the same thought that was undoubtedly on the mind of both Bushes: why does this godforsaken “debate” make 90 minutes seem like an eternity?

First let’s get the superficial aspects of the debate out of the way. The “town hall” format as currently constituted is absurd. The audience is purposely drawn from “undecided” voters. But what kind of voters are still undecided this late in the campaign, after two debates? Only the confused, the muddleheaded, the uninformed, and the apolitical; but above all the self-seeking (“What will you do for me?”). This perhaps explains why Gov. Bush’s energy level was palpably lower than it was in last week’s debate. This circumstance naturally favors the candidate and party best at pandering, which in this campaign is the candidate from the state that begins with the letter T. (Both candidates are pandering on the same issues this year, but Republicans can never hope to out-bid Democrats on the level of spending.)

Gore was hoping to find the golden mean between the hectoring, rude, and unappealing attack dog persona of the first debate, and the supine lap dog persona of the second debate. Gore largely succeeded in splitting the difference, and Bush may have calculated that he would again turn Gore’s frenetic style against him by coming in below Gore in his energy level. We won’t know until the historians debrief the campaign strategists after the election, but it is possible that the Bush campaign decided months ago on a rope-a-dope strategy for the three debates. The chalk line from the beginning was that the experienced, intellectual Gore would maul the lightweight Bush. This paradoxically gave Bush a huge strategic advantage, in part because Gore’s reputation as a debater was always overestimated, and in part because Bush could calibrate his strengths of personality and general message.

It was predictable after last week that Gore would be more aggressive this week, and had Bush engaged Gore at a similar level he would have played into Gore’s hand. Instead, the restrained, seemingly tired Bush made even the reformed Gore still appear unlikable. If he loses next month, Gore is likely to go down in history alongside Richard Nixon as highly formidable debate loser.

Gore’s dilemma is that while the “issue map” supposedly favors him, which is why he wanted to accentuate his policy differences with Governor Bush, voters dislike rancor and attacks. So whatever Gore wins on substantive points, he loses in style points. Bush’s central insight—that voters are tired of unvarnished partisanship—trumps substance. At the same time Bush seems to have found a sweet spot, sparring not on the particulars of the issues but on the broad brush of different philosophies of government. He has largely succeeded in making out Gore as the candidate of big government; the hazard for Bush is that “big government” is not the slam-dunk winner for Republicans that it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

Gore attempted to capture some of the “vision” premium by borrowing some of Jimmy Carter’s rhetoric from 1976, which makes sense as Gore is also borrowing Carter’s energy plan. Like Carter in 1976, Gore kept using the peroration, “I see an America…”, mixed with the populism of his Los Angeles convention speech. But his constant invocation that he would “fight for you” subtly underscored Bush’s theme that “there is too much fighting in Washington.”

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all three debates is that not once did either candidate make any appeal to traditional partisanship. Neither candidate invoked the legacy or even the name of their political party. Long before the comedian Seinfeld gave us a TV show about nothing, the political scientist Willmoore Kendall predicted that presidential candidates would increasingly talk about nothing in their campaigns. We aren’t quite there yet, but the trend of “debates” that don’t encourage extended disputations about the details of issues is contributing to the continuing “de-alignment” of the American electorate.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.