This time Gore hardly agreed with Bush on anything. "We have a HUGE difference on this question," he said in response to Bush's explanation of his education plan, just as he did on such topics as the patient's bill of rights, prescription drugs for the elderly, tax cuts, Social Security, and affirmative action.
On several of these topics, Gore etched sharp distinctions, revealing significant differences that Bush tried to blur. On the patient's bill of rights, Gore hammered home his point that Bush supports a Republican bill backed by the insurance industry rather than the bipartisan Dingell-Norwood bill that would regulate HMOs more stringently. On affirmative action, Gore exposed Bush's dodge about supporting "affirmative access." When Gore pressed Bush further on his position, Bush appealed to the moderator, Jim Lehrer, for a lifeline, pointing out that Gore wasn't supposed to question him directly. When Gore charged Bush with spending $1 trillion of the Social Security surplus twice, Bush again floundered, accusing his opponent of trying to best him with a "high-school debating trick."
On these issues, Gore's gamble paid off. Bush looked worse for not having answers ready than the vice president did for being too aggressive. Gore managed to take these swipes in a tone that was closer to the one he displayed in the first debate than the second. He confronted Bush in a way that seemed pushy and even desperate at a few points, but which stayed just inside the bounds of tolerability just the same. Perhaps most important, it came across as an authentic performance. You might not like Gore, but he didn't seem to be trying to be something he's not--or not be something he is. On his third try, he finally got the debate thing more or less right.
Where Gore crossed the likability line, I thought, was in his smarminess toward the audience. Though barred by the negotiated rules from engaging in dialogue with the undecided voters who asked the questions, Gore oozed all over them nonetheless. "That is a GREAT question," he told a woman who asked whether part of the solution to the cost of prescription drugs might be in discouraging use of them. Of course, Gore never answered her great question or even engaged with the premise, choosing instead to retail all the wonderful bennies in his Medicare prescription drug plan. When a public-school teacher stood up, or a farmer, or a member of minority group, Gore responded with a tongue bath. This is something else that Gore never quite learned from Bill Clinton over the past eight years: You bond with ordinary people by taking them seriously and engaging with their concerns, not by flattering them. What seemed slightly off-key was Gore's attitude that every semi-articulate questioner had to be completely right about everything while his opponent was totally wrong about nearly everything.
If Gore's performance was significantly better, Bush's was shockingly better. The governor's improvement between the first and second debates was notable. But his improvement since the second debate was, if anything, even more striking. I'm not sure how to explain the change, but tonight Bush seemed not only to have some idea what he was talking about much of the time, but even to be at ease with his knowledge. Unlike last time, Bush wasn't desperate to squeeze in minor references to East Timor to show he'd studied. Through most of the debate, he sounded confident and assured. Early on he noted that his trust in the people rather than the federal government "will be one of the themes you hear tonight." And he really did make it into a theme rather than a drumming cliché. Bush also did a deft job working in his other big themes--that he is someone who can work across party lines to get things done and that Gore is for big government. Somehow all that cramming--invisible in the first debate, too visible in the second--finally worked the way it was supposed to.
Unlike Gore, Bush didn't pander to the audience. Toward the end of the debate, a black man asked him a hostile-sounding question about the fact that he seemed almost proud, in the last debate, that Texas leads the nation in executions. Bush disagreed vehemently, and described how hard he finds the decisions he has to make about whether to allow executions to proceed. Before long, Bush had the hostile questioner nodding in seeming agreement with him.
Bush did miss some big opportunities. When a woman who said she was middle class and single with no dependents asked how much of a tax cut she would get under either candidate's plan, Gore went first with a kitchen-sink answer. He told her she would qualify for matching contributions to a personal savings account and a tax credit for taking care of sick parents or help purchasing health insurance. The reason for Gore's reaching was obvious--without children, the woman doesn't qualify for much of a tax break under his plan. She would qualify for a break under Bush's plan. But rather than respond that the woman would pay a lower rate whatever her income, Bush gave an even more meandering response, saying that he would make her neighborhood safer and use the military judiciously to create a more peaceful world. Had she been allowed to respond, she might have said, "I asked about a tax cut." Bush was also at sea in responding to a question about how to help the family farmer, but bluffed his way out reasonably well.
Unlike the first two debates, I think this one lacked a clear winner (sorry!). Both candidates performed better than they have previously. Gore scored a few more substantive points. But Bush was the clear winner on style. In his closing statement, he used a line I've heard a few times before. "For those of you for me, thanks for your help," he said. "For those of you for my opponent, please only vote once." In context, it was a sweet, Reaganesque touch. And it was the only laugh of the night.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.