Debate II: Wake me, shake me -- is it over?

Sleepwalkin' Bob and Slick Willie put on another soporific display as Campaign '96 snoozes into the stretch run

By Susan Rasky

Published October 17, 1996 10:56AM (EDT)

Thank God for TV's full-service campaign coverage. Right there on CBS, not 10 minutes after the second presidential debate, was Dan Rather asking New York Times columnist Frank Rich what the newspaper lead should be.

"Bob Dole sharpened his attack on Bill Clinton, who held the line somewhat dully. But Dole didn't shake up the race," Rich replied.

Not elegant, and a little hard on Clinton, but basically correct and serviceable. That much accomplished, how now to justify all the energy spent in following the campaign, devouring the poll results and hoping against hope and all common sense that somehow Dole could use this final debate to make a race of it.

No one committed news. Clinton and Dole agreed that the Middle East must be handled delicately, that Social Security would be made safe for the next generation (or as Clinton so deftly put it, "baby boomers like me"), and that a bipartisan commission should tackle Medicare. Undoubtedly, Clinton, upon his reelection, will name Dole to head it.

Like all reporters who covered Dole in Congress, I have trouble hiding my soft spot for him. It is almost physically painful to watch a man who had such mastery of both the big picture and the minutiae on Capitol Hill stumble his way through the rigors and indignities of a modern presidential campaign. Imagine a former Senate majority leader, after 30 years in politics, having to boast, as he did last night, "I am not a public official."

The debate -- "make that 'joint appearance,'" Peter Jennings sniffed -- had, like the first one, flashes of the Dole I knew in the Senate. But the witty asides and arrested phrases that played so well in Capitol corridors and late-night floor debates sounded only aimless and ill-informed in this venue. How else to describe Dole's response to the young engineer who asked about tax cuts and balanced budgets? The candidate launched into a discussion of affirmative action, veered back to tax policy, only to stop himself mid-sentence and reflect that cutting the estate tax probably was not of immediate concern to a man who couldn't have been more than 30 years old.

Clinton was what he always is in front of a live crowd, by turns ingratiating and commanding. Dole kept a respectful distance from the audience. But the President was, well, intimate (in a presidential sort of way, of course), focusing those watery blue eyes on each questioner's upturned face as though the two of them were all alone in that big auditorium. Only once did the intimacy seem to ring false: when Shannon McCaffey, a teacher, opened the debate with a question about "ideals and morals" and Clinton smiled and began his answer, "Well, Sandy..."

Even as he emoted and empathized and recited the particulars of his pet legislation, Clinton effortlessly incorporated all those little strategic gestures -- questions back to the audience, the endearing "aw shucks" look and the great flourishes of note-taking and head-shaking to mark his disapproval whenever Dole challenged a White House position. At times, the president literally invaded his opponent's camera space, striding from the podium to take center stage while Dole was still speaking.

Dole offered his most succinct and forceful comments when the subject turned to military matters. He accused Clinton of cutting the defense budget too deeply and, by not so subtle implication, failing to serve in the armed forces. But an answer about whether affirmative action policy should continue was at best a tepid, almost rote endorsement of the California ballot initiative to end most state affirmative action programs. He attempted to amplify his position with a confusing explanation of a New Jersey reverse discrimination case.

Afterwards, on ABC, commentator and resident Republican George Will could barely contain his fury. Will, whose wife has worked on the Dole campaign, unleashed a scorching criticism that almost singed the TV monitor.

"Never has a man made less of more ammunition," he barked, adding that Dole's "muddled description" of the New Jersey case betrayed a candidate unable to understand his own positions. Will suggested the GOP begin advertising the idea that Dole was going to lose as a last hope of convincing voters to preserve the Republican majorities in the house and senate.

On PBS, where there is upper crust spin and history to boot, former Dole media consultant Mike Murphy and veteran Democratic Svengali Bob Shrum provided requisite partisan twirls. Shrum thought Dole was better than in the first debate but not good enough to draw blood or be declared winner of this one. Murphy, ever the pro, rattled off the adjectives he hoped reporters might incorporate. He described Clinton as "defensive," "running out the clock," "a used car salesman who always has the right answer," "glib, slick and insincere."

But did anything change the race, Elizabeth Farnsworth wanted to know? "Not a lightning bolt," Murphy opined, "but maybe a catalyst, not the kind of thing that's going to show up in the morning polls."

The 90 minutes seemed to move more swiftly than they had in the previous debate, but still the mind wandered. What exactly was Jim Lehrer doing there? His singular purpose last night seemed to be inquiring whether "anyone in section two" had a foreign policy question.

And then there was Fabio. Not the real Fabio, mind you, but a dead ringer with flowing blond locks who occupied a front-row seat. Maybe Fabio had a foreign policy question, but Lehrer, alas, never called on him. The questioners -- carefully selected by the Gallup organization to reflect uncommitted voters -- were almost shockingly white. A pointed reminder, especially to Californians, that the voting population is very different from the population at large.

The moral of all this may be that reporters should be careful about what they preach. All that hand-wringing over negative ads and uncivil public discourse produced, in the end, a set of debates so utterly civilized that they were meaningless. Even if more blood had been drawn, however, it probably wouldn't have changed many voter's minds. Reporters seem to have to discover anew each election cycle what political scientists have known for years: debates don't change the fundamental dynamic of a race.

The networks provided instant polls to underscore that point. A CBS poll asked voters which debate was more informative. Twenty-nine percent said this one; two percent said the first one, and 61 percent said neither.

Susan Rasky

Susan Rasky, a former congressional correspondent for The New York Times, is a professor at UC-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

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