LOS ANGELES--For a brief period earlier this week, when John McCain and George W. Bush were both threatening to participate in tonight's debate by satellite, there was a prospect that the "live" event would consist of Alan Keyes shouting at a TV set.
In the end, Bush showed up, McCain was represented by a box on a lectern, and the whole show was stupefyingly familiar. At this point, there have been so many debates that there just aren't many questions that haven't been asked and answered repeatedly. The heart sinks when a reporter asks Bush or McCain about Taiwan for the umpteenth time, and they respond, yet again, with their well-worn answers. This time the dullness was exacerbated by a format designed to prevent anything interesting from happening. Under the rules, the candidates weren't permitted to speak to each other, and the moderator cut off direct exchanges whenever they threatened to break out
I don't see how it made any difference, but the few revealing moments were ones that made McCain look bad. Both he and Bush were at pains to prevent the debate from degenerating into the kind of argument about campaign tactics that dominated their last encounter in South Carolina. But that is where the real interest is at the moment, and they couldn't forestall it entirely. When Jeff Greenfield asked John McCain to defend his "Catholic Voter Alert" calls and McCain asserted that they didn't accuse Bush of being a bigot, Bush responded convincingly that, "if you don't think those phone calls labeled me an anti-Catholic bigot, then you haven't been paying attention to what your campaign was putting out." Bush's upset over the McCain ads comparing him to President Clinton seemed a bit staged last time around. But tonight Bush seemed truly wounded as he complained that the phone calls were the reason "why people questioned my heart for a while." Giving Bush another legitimate grievance was a big mistake on McCain's part.
The second McCain flub was when Greenfield, pointing out his weakness on domestic policy, asked him about what he had accomplished on education during his 18 years in the House and Senate. McCain's response was a stream of obfuscatory gobbledygook "Supporting various education programs, member of the Education Committee in the House of Representatives years ago and being part of those efforts as well," McCain said. "Using the bully pulpit in favor of the examples that are set in my state and by other reformers in the school system in America, I mean that are reformers of the school system in America." He waffled on in this vein until Judy Woodruff called, "Time."
Finally, McCain suffered a lapse in tone when answering a question posed to each of the candidates about whether they use the Internet. "My wife Cindy is a whiz, and when I want to find out what's on CNN or the New York Times, the Washington Post, or other Communist periodicals, I always ..." This kind of horseplay is fine for the Straight Talk Express. But when he's answering serious questions about whether he has the temperament to be president, McCain should probably refrain from playing the class cut-up.