BOSTON--My take: Bush got his clock cleaned. The reason was pretty simple and evident from the first minutes. The debate was mostly about policy. And whereas Al Gore understands policy and can engage in a detailed discussion about it, George W. Bush doesn't and can't.
This disparity was evident from the first question. When Jim Lehrer asked Gore whether Bush was qualified to be president, the vice president shunned the invitation to criticize his opponent "personally" and immediately started hammering on Bush's tax cut. Gore noted that Bush's economic plan "would spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent than all of the new spending he proposes for health care, prescription drugs, and national defense all combined."
The only comeback Bush could muster to this charge was that Gore was using "phony numbers"--though Bush didn't say what number was phony, or how. This happened time and again. Gore would repeat his "wealthiest 1 percent" charge. Bush would respond that Gore was using "phony numbers," "fuzzy numbers," "fuzzy math," or what he referred to at one point as "all his fuzzy Washington math." These rejoinders were neither clever nor responsive to the accusation. All they did was underscore the point that Bush had no idea whether Gore's claim was accurate or not. Gore, sensing weakness, repeated his charge relentlessly. After absorbing the pain for a good long while, Bush made clear his discomfort with a joke. When Lehrer said it was time for the next question, Bush quipped, "I hope it's about wealthy people."
The policy gap became even clearer on the next topic, prescription drugs for the elderly. Under Bush's plan, Gore claimed that "95 percent of all seniors would get no help whatsoever" for the first four or five years. Bush's response: "I guess my answer to that is the man is running on Mediscare. It's not what I think, and it's not my intentions and not my plan. I want all seniors to have prescription drugs in Medicare." In other words, Bush said that he didn't intend to do what Gore said he was planning. But Bush couldn't explain in any convincing way why Gore was wrong about his plan. Again, Gore hammered him, pointing out one of the guests he brought with him, a 70-year-old man he said would get no help with his drug bills from Bush because he and his wife have an income of $25,000 a year.
On this second pass, Bush responded even more lamely and vaguely, "I cannot let this go by, the old style Washington politics. ... Under my plan, the man gets immediate help with prescription drugs. It's called an immediate helping hand instead of finger-pointing." There were some answers to Gore's charge, which went up promptly on the Bush-Cheney Web site: that Gore's plan would help no one at all for two years while Bush's plan would help those in most dire need sooner. But Bush couldn't summon any details, only platitudes and generalities about his good intentions. Once again, the impression was that he didn't know whether Gore's claim was true or not because he didn't understand his own proposal very well.
The next subject, abortion, made Bush squirm even more. Bush apparently didn't want to remind the swing women of the battleground states that he wants to make abortion illegal. So he offered the dodge that he thinks abortion "ought to be more rare" and that "it's a sensitive topic because a lot of good people disagree on the issue." On the specific question of RU-486, the abortion pill, Bush tried to say that he wouldn't do anything to second-guess the FDA's decision legalizing the abortion pill but that he hoped "the FDA took its time to make sure that American women will be safe who use this drug."
"The FDA took 12 years," Gore shot back, pointing out that Bush was contradicting what he said only a few days ago: He would order the agency to review the RU-486 decision.
He went on to turn Bush's own cliché back on him. "He trusts the government to order a woman to do what it thinks she ought to do. I trust women to make the decisions that affect their lives, their destinies, and their bodies." Once again, Gore won both the skirmish and the battle. He won the skirmish by siding effectively with a numerical majority of undecided voters. And he won the battle by running rings around Bush in terms of agility and engagement with the issue. He knew the details and the history. Bush clearly didn't.
By the time the subject turned to foreign policy, Gore was moving dangerously near the overkill zone--a line he seemed to sense and tread carefully. When Lehrer asked what the United States should do about Slobodan Milosevic's refusal to accept the results of the recent Serbian election, Gore gave a detailed answer about creating incentives for the Serbs to get rid of their tyrant, pronouncing the name "Kostunica" with diplomatic precision. Bush avoided both the specifics and the opportunity to show his pronunciation skills. "It's time for the man to go," he said referring to Milosevic, adding, "This will be an interesting moment for the Russians to step up and lead as well. ... We would like to see the Russians use [their] sway to encourage democracy to take hold."
Gore swiftly parried. "Now I understand what the governor has said about asking the Russians to be involved, and under some circumstances that might be a good idea," the vice president said. "But being as they have not yet been willing to recognize the lawful winner of the election, I'm not sure it's right for us to invite the president of Russia to mediate this." Once again, point, game, and set to Gore.
I don't think Bush won a single exchange all evening. His performance did improve somewhat in the second half of the debate. On education and Social Security, he articulated his positions more clearly and was not so obviously the loser. And Bush did get a few licks in at the end when he went after Gore on ethical issues and tried to raise doubts about his trustworthiness. Gore chose to ignore these attacks, claiming the high ground of the "issues."
The consensus going into the debate was that Bush had to prove to the American people that he wasn't too dumb to be president, while Gore had to prove he wasn't too mean. Gore, with disciplined restraint, did show he wasn't too mean. As for Bush--well, he still has two more chances.
Photographs on the Slate table of contents of: George W. Bush by Jeff Mitchell/Reuters and Al Gore byJim Bourg/Reuters.