The Republican candidates sharing a stage at Dartmouth College for their town meeting Thursday night suffered in comparison with the Democratic candidates from the night before in at least two important respects.
First, while there had been only two Democrats Wednesday -- Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley -- there were five Republicans sharing the stage (Gov. George W. Bush, the sixth, having pulled a no-show). So while the town meeting's 60-minute format had allowed for a full look at both Democrats, the Republican hopefuls got only about six minutes of speaking time apiece. That's about four questions each, plus a couple of brief opportunities to weigh in on the flat tax, as well as a comically brief closing statement that lasted but 20 seconds each.
Second, the Democratic candidates -- whatever their
weaknesses -- are two longtime elected officials. Three out of the five GOP candidates, however, haven't as much as been elected president of their local Ricky Martin fan club.
And one of them, commentator Alan Keyes, is clearly a loon.
You almost couldn't help but appreciate the wisdom (if not the arrogance) of Gov. Bush's boycott of the event. Keyes tinges everyone near him with the stain of preposterousness. Someone in the CNN/WMUR-TV control room was clearly having some fun picking
confused and bewildered audience members for cut-away shots during Keyes' tirades.
Keyes came to the press room after the town meeting to weigh in on his performance and to discuss how the media cabal never gives him his due. "I
often win these debates," he ranted, "and every time I stand before you press folks, you have no questions for me ... People of this country have gotten over their racial sickness, but you can't look past race ... And I think I'm deadly sick of it!"
Bush's absence, of course, also kept Thursday night's event from being taken as seriously as it might have been. There were many reasons cited for his nonattendance, officially and otherwise:
1) In what may be the guiding light of his media strategy -- which seems to
be to avoid reporters, tough questions and press conferences of longer than 30 seconds, at all costs -- the glib, affable Bush knows he's a prisoner of his own stellar first impression. Once you get to
know him a little better, however, you realize there's not all that
much more there; you start to trust him less, and his evasive ways start to make you feel uneasy. Hence, he'd rather stave off that realization as long as possible, hopefully until after November 2000.
2) He's so far out in front in polls, cash, organization and endorsements, that the first GOP debate was guaranteed to be a game of pile-on-W. He has nothing to gain from such an event and will only participate when he absolutely has to. Hence, he
also skipped a Republican debate last Friday at the University of New Hampshire, opting instead to attend a fund-raiser across the
Connecticut River in Vermont.
3) His raccoon has hepatitis.
4) He's holed up in an Austin, Texas, library with a world atlas, boning up on the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia.
5) He's busy attending a ceremony at Southern Methodist University for his wife, where she's being honored as an outstanding alumna.
"I've always thought my most important job is to be a good dad and loving husband," Bush said in a statement, and then later in a
pre-town meeting interview with WMUR-TV. "Those of you who are married will certainly understand why I unfortunately cannot be at
tonight's debate -- my wife is being recognized with a
once-in-a-lifetime honor ... I wouldn't miss it for the world."
No. 5 is the answer Bush gave, obviously. One of his challengers, gazillionaire Steve Forbes, responded Thursday, "Blah, blah, blah, blah ... Perhaps future organizers of debates should call them 'fund-raisers' and he'd show up."
Forbes joined Keyes, Christian activist Gary Bauer, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Arizona Sen. John McCain to take audience questions, as funneled through CNN's Judy Woodruff and Manchester's
WMUR-TV's Tom Griffith.
Conventional wisdom would have it that this was an important event for McCain, as he's rising in the New Hampshire polls -- 28 percent to Bush's 41 percent, 21 percent to Bush's 39 percent, or 26 percent to Bush's 42 percent, depending upon your preference in pollsters. McCain is here and fighting hard; he unveiled a biographical ad this week and
held a press conference Wednesday re-introducing his plan to fund an experimental school voucher program targeted at the poorest communities and funded by closing government subsidies on ethanol, sugar, oil and gas.
So all eyes were on McCain, and he handled himself just fine. He drove home the point that real reform -- whether in health care, education or taxes -- is "not possible when average Americans are no longer represented in Washington, D.C.," usurped, as they are, by "the special interests" McCain promised to "fight 'til the last breath I draw."
But none of the candidates, including McCain, were really able to get across their raison d'etres, restricted as they were to brevity.
Hatch -- a decent, upright man whose ill-conceived campaign should soon replace the Loch Ness monster as one of Time/Life's new "mysteries of the world" volumes -- boasted that he had "more experience than anyone running -- including the two Democrats."
Bauer projected himself as a reasonable-seeming, bureaucrat-hating moralist trying to challenge Forbes for the conservative Christian vote. He went after the Forbes tax plan for providing a "major new write-off for big business," and tried to figure out his position on Most Favored Nation
status for China.
Forbes, from the Disneyland Hall of CEOs -- still unblinking and unflinching, precise and fastidious -- was a tad more relaxed, even to the point of telling few (quite good) jokes. He stayed on message, of course, and offered a compelling
answer on HMO reform by telling the audience about the Forbes Inc. health care policy introduced earlier this decade. Giving each worker $1,500 to cover routine medical expenses, the Forbes policy declared: "You are in charge. If you want to buy into an HMO, you can. If you want fee-for-service you can." The policy empowered individuals,
Forbes said. "Consumerism works."
And Keyes? In addition to being the most frightening man
on stage, partly because he was probably the smartest of the lot, Keyes was easily the most outspoken.
For example, when Forbes was asked whether he would hire or fire someone who was openly gay, he answered that he would "hire people who are qualified for the job, people who can do the work at hand, people who are there to get
something done -- not to make a political statement about a lifestyle."
"Homosexuality is an abomination," Keyes stated in answer to the same question.
A tall dude in a leather jacket asked McCain about the hypocrisy of marijuana being illegal while alcohol isn't. "Thank you, that is an excellent question, which I would
prefer to duck," McCain said before jokingly recalling a question about the legalization of hemp that he'd
taken -- but misunderstood -- earlier in the campaign. He then disagreed with the questioner's belief that marijuana wasn't harmful, agreed that liquor is and went right into the impossibility of health care reform -- which led him back to ... campaign finance reform.
Keyes has a different prism, of course. "We're not dealing with a material problem," he said in response to a question about the war on drugs; "We're dealing with a moral problem ... The fundamental discipline prevailing in society when I was born has broken down."
Keyes addressed every question from the mindset that the United States is in the midst of "the worst moral crisis we've ever faced, and we must address it or we're going to lose our liberty."
If you agree, and you don't mind the hectoring, then God bless. But regardless of my irredeemably secular and amoral worldview, it seems more than possible from the frothing tenor of Keyes' outrage alone -- not to mention the peculiar causes that merit his proselytizing, like
"getting rid of the socialist income tax" -- that he is in serious need of some medication.
A few odd and disjointed moments exacerbated the circus atmosphere. A protester disrupted the forum for several minutes, shouting obliquely about military spending. Asked about immigration laws, Gary Bauer
compared illegal aliens from Mexico to "bullies cutting in lines" in the schoolyard. Hatch, revealing his legislator's soul, spoke of
replacing the IRS with "the finest actuarially signed accountants and attorneys."
And a woman who wanted to ask Bush about her observation that "the nomination process seems more like an auction," chose instead to ask the question of
Forbes -- who has funded his campaign with at least $16 million of his own personal fortune, and is taking some heat for a recent eyebrow-raising New York
Times report that he has been raising cash for his campaign by selling shares in his magazine (for an amount that he has refused to disclose). Forbes gave a decent answer, though, arguing for a repeal of the campaign donation restrictions and saying,
"The establishment loves these rules. Unless you're blessed like me with individual resources, they have ways of shutting you out."
Other moments provided the event with some gravitas and reminders of
the seriousness of the task at hand.
After Woodruff asked all of the candidate about the flat tax, Forbes -- who essentially created the issue in his last run for president -- said that the fact that so many of his opponents
supported the program was proof that "education works." He relayed an example of the Daley family
of Exeter, and how the plan would benefit them specifically, with the first $41,000 of their income coming in tax-free. "The Daleys told me
they'd save enough from my flat tax to purchase health insurance," Forbes said, noting that the family would only be taxed 17 cents on
the dollar for everything exceeding the $41,000. Plus,
Forbes said, they'll have "no tax on pensions, no tax on capital gains, and no death taxes ... They'll be able to leave the world unmolested by the
IRS. It's a new principle of taxation," Forbes joked, "no taxation without respiration."
Bauer, a janitor's son, spoke movingly about his 76-year-old mother, in Newport, Ky., who has suffered one heart attack and continues to suffer at the hands of America's HMOs. "I was very troubled when the leadership of my party in the Congress got itself into a box of taking the position that the average American shouldn't have right to sue their HMO," Bauer said. "We have accountants making decisions
instead of doctors. I hope my party will get on the right side" of the issue, he said.
Hatch, a former janitor, pointed out that on many of the issues he's "not just talking about it -- I've done it," since he's been a senator since the
Mesozoic era. But he, too, managed to cram into the brief time allotted a tale about his discovery not long ago that the "working poor who did not have medical health care" were "the only people
fully left out" of the debate. He said he passed the CHIP (child health insurance program) to provide health care for 7 million poor children.
And though McCain rang the campaign finance reform bell all night long, he perhaps spoke most movingly when he was able to attach consequences
to pork-barrel spending. Deriding the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military programs funded by Congress against the Pentagon's
wishes, McCain said -- in a vague reference to Bush-backing Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull's recent insinuation that he has a temper -- "People say
that perhaps I'm angry ... I get angry when we spend hundreds of millions" irresponsibly while 12,000 enlisted men and women are on food stamps.
"It's a disgrace," McCain spat.
All of the candidates managed to exhibit brief glimpses of their rhetorical skills, but no one emerged the clear "winner," which is kind
of a irrelevant concept when you think about it.
"From a conservative point of view, the consistent, systematic, thoughtful conservative on stage was Gary Bauer," said Dartmouth government professor Richard Winters. "He clearly has a lot more
depth than the rest of the candidates. McCain has his hot-button issue -- campaign finance reform -- which he trots out to the electorate, and the audience resonated with him. Keyes is a frustrated academic
political theorist, but he's wonderful at what he does, which is throw bombast. Forbes is a real enigma and I do not understand the
resonance to the man ... he's a political pig in a poke."
And Orrin Hatch?
"He's a very nice man."
All six of the GOP candidates are finally scheduled to face off on Dec. 2 in Manchester, N.H. That is, unless Bush gets a cold. Or has to wash his hair. Whatever.