Al Gore isn't waiting to launch his campaign against George W. Bush. "I will challenge the Republican nominee to join with me right now in banning so-called soft money," Gore declared last night. He challenged his Republican opponent "to eliminate all of the 30-second and 60-second radio and TV ads and instead debate twice a week every week … a separate issue each time." Gore called for "a contest of ideas and not insults, a campaign conducted in full daylight and not through secretly funded special-interest attack ads or smear telephone calls."
The debate challenge has grabbed the attention of the TV networks. On Nightline, Ted Koppel pressed Bush to answer the challenge. Bush ducked it, calling Gore a hypocrite on campaign-finance reform and cautioning that two debates a week might lead to "debate fatigue." As long as Bush resists the offer, he'll look cowardly and evasive. That's the idea. But Gore's premise, which the media are swallowing whole and which Bush has shown no skill in rebutting, is worth examining. Would regular debates generate "a contest of ideas and not insults"? Would they clarify which man would be a better president?
Think back over the debates you've seen during the primaries. What messages did Gore deliver again and again? That he'll "fight for you." That "the presidency isn't an academic exercise" or a "seminar on some grand theory." And what messages did Bush deliver? That he's a "compassionate conservative" and a "reformer with results." That he'll end "a season of cynicism" and "uphold the honor and dignity of the office." In short, the candidates gave us in the debates exactly what they gave us in ads and speeches: as many insults as ideas, as much smearing as substance.
So why does Gore want debates? Because he's good at them. It's not the content that suits him. It's the format. Gore is disciplined, aggressive, and bullheaded. He excels in forums that put the candidates in the same room, authorize confrontation, and let the most strong-willed contestant dictate the subject matter. Bush is weak in these departments. Standing at a podium alongside his rivals, he's stiff and awkward. Under assault, he's tentative. Personally impugned, he's defensive. Confronted at close range, he looks away. Questioned about uncomfortable subjects, he rambles and retreats into abstractions.
Gore wants you to think that this proves Bush is stupid and spineless. It doesn't. In conversation, as opposed to staged confrontations, Bush often comes across as agile, well-balanced, and wise. He fumbles some details but demonstrates that he sees the big picture and knows the difference. He's good at listening to advice and criticism, synthesizing it, and putting it in perspective. The wit that fails him in adversarial settings comes to life in friendly or collaborative discussion. None of this comes across in debates. It comes across in sympathetic interviews and in conversations with small groups of supporters.
Watching the Republican primary debates, you may have wondered what all those Republican governors, senators, and donors who signed up with Bush a year ago saw in him. The answer is that they saw him individually and in small groups. They didn't consider or realize how he would come across in debates. That's why they've been sweating out the race since New Hampshire. They bought the car without test-driving it. As soon as they pulled out of the lot, they discovered that the brakes were faulty. Now they're trying to figure out how to get home without running into traffic.
Bush now faces two bad choices. He can debate Gore and lose to him, or he can duck the debates and be accused constantly of using "soft money" and "attack ads" to cover up his evasion of "issues" and "ideas." Either way, Gore will argue that Bush's inability to debate effectively shows that Bush would be a bad president. But does it? Does the important work of the presidency resemble an hour of jousting in 45-second sound bites over questions about horse-race strategy and hot-button issues? Or does it resemble the collaborative synthesis and private, individual negotiation at which Bush excels?
The good news for Bush is that there's a case to be made for the latter theory. The bad news is that this case will have to be made in formal settings under hostile fire—and that he's the one who will have to make it.