Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 11 1996 3:30 AM


       The fashionable line about this year's vice-presidential candidates is that they are both cranks--Kemp about supply-side economics, Gore about the environment. Based on last night's debate, that description seems unfair. Kemp is a crank. Gore is a bore.
       Jack Kemp's crankiness is of the motivational, Richard Simmons-Tony Robbins variety. Marvelous consequences will follow from strict adherence to his program, though doom will not necessarily result from ignoring it. Simmons will make everyone thin, Robbins will make everyone successful, and Kemp knows how to make everyone rich. His single, simple idea is that across-the-board tax cuts will act as Miracle-Gro for the American economy, doubling its size in short order. Kemp has a faith that is religious, not rational, that lower taxes will result in an economic boom, and that the boom will cure every problem imaginable, from the breakdown of the inner cities to our sense of declining civility. Asked by the lugubrious Jim Lehrer whether America was growing too selfish, Kemp said yes, but that it was nothing lower taxes wouldn't solve.
       Al Gore displayed no comparable monomania. If the vice president is a tree-hugging kook, his challenger failed to come up with a single example of his extremism. Indeed, it was Gore who had Kemp on the defensive on environmental issues, taking credit for Clinton's expansion of the national park system and scoring points by accusing the Gingrich Congress of letting lobbyists rewrite regulations (Kemp got uncharacteristically huffy at this point, charging Gore with giving "an anti-capitalist answer"). Gore was, in his way, as hard to listen to as Kemp. His style of speaking was as condescending as usual--"I am very smart," he seems to be signaling, "but I have to speak this way because you're a dog." His hand gestures have turned into full-scale pantomime; they are a kind of slang version of sign language. You would have missed very little without the sound. And Gore's new self-mocking shtick about what a nerdy, stiff guy he is only makes matters worse. If you're going to kid about having no sense of humor, you'd better be funny about it. Gore wasn't.
       But in the debate version of Rock-Scissors-Paper, Bore wore down Crank. In fact, for a while in the middle of the debate, it seemed Gore was mopping the floor with his opponent. When the vice president accused Kemp of switching his position on affirmative action, Kemp had no convincing response. When Gore quoted Kemp's old jabs at Dole for being a tax monster, Kemp offered no response at all. Gore was totally successful, I thought, in conveying the impression that Kemp was a very nice, well-meaning man, but a total nut. He even grabbed hold of a line about the "golden rule," to assault Kemp's old call for the return of the gold standard. Rather than fighting back, Kemp kept flagellating himself, saying that the Democrats were accusing the Republicans of practicing "trickle-down economics"--a charge from 1992 that the Democrats aren't actually making this year. Kemp said he thought the better metaphor for the GOP tax plan was "Niagara Falls." This set Gore up for the only good wisecrack of the night, that they wanted to "put the American economy in a barrel and send it over the falls." I do wish, though, that someone would tell Clinton and Gore to stop saying Republicans want to "blow a hole in the deficit." You can't blow a hole in the deficit. The deficit is a hole.
       This time, the press filing center was directly adjacent to the debate hall, so the attendees began to trickle in after the debate, helping themselves to the processed food products provided as a bribe to the press by Philip Morris (best new slogan, observed on the way in to the hall: "I smoke and I vote"). The bigger problem was the free disposable cameras. Once they noticed what was going on at the other end of the gym, the wanderers-over wanted to have pictures taken with the celebrities, Donna Shalala, Henry Cisneros, and George Stephanopoulos (who was so besieged he could barely spin). There was even one lady who asked to have her picture taken with Scott Reed, Dole's glum-looking campaign manager. It's possible she was fan of his. But I think she was just being nice.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.