Election 2000: The Debate Between Presidental Means and Ends

Lucas Morel

October 1, 2000

At the first presidential debate on Tuesday night, both candidates succeeded in framing the discussion according to their strengths while improving upon weaknesses. But the most striking difference between their presentations was over means and ends. Vice President Al Gore stressed the means he would propose as president to solve the nation’s problems, while Texas Governor George W. Bush emphasized the ends to which he would direct the federal government.

Right from the start, Gore focused on their respective “proposals,” not, as moderator Jim Lehrer suggested with his first question, on “experience” for the presidency. Instead of riding the coattails of President Clinton’s putative legacy of economic prosperity, the vice president referred to the current prosperity to set up his agenda for a Gore presidency. As he put it, “Will we be better off four years from now?”

In so doing, Gore has chosen to run as “his own man,” staking his electoral future not on the magic of vice presidential incumbency but on the real-world details and projected results of his policies. Gore the Policy Wonk won out over Gore the Vice President. True, he was quick to note that the last eight years have produced a bustling economy. But he now uses that as a springboard to elaborate on his campaign slogan, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” Translation: “If you liked the Clinton years with regards to economic prosperity, the Gore years will be more of the same for even more American citizens.”

Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the debate is the current president, who neither candidate mentioned during their ninety-minute face-off. As political scientist Larry Sabato recently suggested, perhaps the presidential race is so close because the American people seek both change and consistency in the next presidential administration. They want to leave the Clinton scandals behind, which means a vote for change and, therefore, a Bush presidency. But they also want continued economic prosperity, which is a vote for the status quo and, therefore, the elevation of the vice president to the presidency.

With Clinton as both burden and benefit, Gore decided to tilt his rhetoric toward the benefit side of the equation—the current economic prosperity—while downplaying his association with the unsavory aspects of Clinton’s legacy. This explains why Sen. Joe Lieberman was his pick for vice president: to provide the cloak of decency Gore lacked when he chose to remain vice president rather than resign in the wake of Clinton’s deceptions. In fact, the only time Gore mentioned Lieberman in the debate was in response to the question about any issues of character that might differentiate Bush and Gore.

From “universal pre-school” and “renewable energy” to “lock boxes” and “Social Security Plus,” Gore highlighted a plethora of initiatives that addressed a host of issues but with no discernible unifying principle—except that of finding government use for the projected national surplus. One might even argue that when Gore refers to the Constitution as a “document that grows,” he mistakes the Constitution for the federal government, for the latter has grown as it has assumed more responsibility for providing for individual Americans from cradle to grave.

Bush, on the other hand, explained his proposals within the context of distinguishing the people from their government. He noted that the surplus was not the federal government’s money but the people’s. And since they generated that wealth, they deserved to receive some of it back. Gore’s alternative, Bush argued, would require the federal government to expand its programs, procedures, and personnel, and thereby limit the choices individual Americans have to govern their own lives.

Bush’s conviction that individuals can make the best decisions for their lives contrasts greatly with Gore’s perception that there are giants in the land that need slaying. Because of “big oil” and “big drug companies and HMOs,” Americans need Gore as the head of the executive branch to fight for them against these “powerful forces.” Bush expressed greater faith in the people. He consistently highlighted the effect his policies would have on governmental systems that have made it difficult for individuals to prosper both economically and morally.

On taxes, Bush argued for a plan that “liberates working people” by cutting taxes across the board. All who pay taxes would receive a tax cut, which shows Bush’s concern that all Americans be served by their common government. Gore spoke the language of class warfare, pitting “the wealthiest one percent” against the rest of America.

On education, Bush would refuse to send existing federal dollars to “subsidize failure”; either “show results” or parents would be allowed to direct federal dollars to schools that worked. Gore spoke of a “funding crisis” in education and therefore proposed increasing federal funding to reduce class size, hire more teachers, and modernize classrooms. But he never distinguished the role of the federal government from that of the states, who bear the greatest responsibility for educating citizens.

On abortion, Bush talked about promoting “a culture of life” where the unborn are “welcomed into life” and the elderly are not subject to euthanasia by legally protected doctors. Gore failed to acknowledge that the unborn even existed, thereby pitting the mother against her own child in the name of a woman’s right to choose.

Polls show the two major candidates in a statistical dead heat among ninety percent of likely voters. How the remaining ten percent weigh the differences between Gore’s means and Bush’s ends will determine the winner in November.

Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.