Wednesday belonged to George W. Bush, Salon's panel of critics mostly agreed. The debate was in the format preferred by his campaign, with Bush, Vice President Al Gore and moderator Jim Lehrer all seated around a table. And like a television family gathered around a dinner table, the candidates seemed compelled to behave themselves. Gore stopped interrupting, and not one sigh could be heard while Bush was talking. The debate reflected the tone of last week's vice presidential debate between Sen. Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney. In a word: civilized.
That civility may not be to Gore's benefit. Any corrective action he took to overcome his pit bull image after the last debate or any points he scored during Wednesday night's discussion of Texas healthcare were counterbalanced by Bush's ability to hold his own in a 45-minute discussion on foreign policy. By agreeing with most of the vice president's positions, Bush may have helped put to rest the Gore campaign's sharpest critique -- that Bush simply isn't presidential timber. Even Gore loyalists conceded that Bush's performance was a step up from last week.
Al Franken, author and comedian
Well, I wished there hadn't been quite so much foreign policy because basically they agree on that. So it would have been nice to spend a little bit more time on the things that I think the people are going to make their decisions on. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more fleshing out of these fuzzy numbers arguments and specifically about the tax cut and what that means in terms of spending for Medicare and the environment.
To some degree they reflect an ideological divide that exists in this country, and I was just sitting there going, "Well, I suppose that if you believe that we should wait longer on global warming, until we have more science saying that it's being caused by carbon monoxide emissions, then you would go for Bush."
In the first debate, the story became the vice president's manner and whether he was overbearing or off-putting. But the fact of the matter is, he did show much more command of the issues. I did think that the governor had a weak performance in the first debate. I thought he was better tonight.
I think that the "Gore is unlikable" [stereotype] was kind of contradicted. But I like him, so you're asking the wrong guy. And I thought Bush showed enough command of foreign policy to look like he could rely enough on Colin Powell and Cheney and Condoleezza Rice to get through it.
As presidential material, [Bush is] not the most intellectually curious person we've had run for the office. The argument is made that Ronald Reagan wasn't all that intellectually curious himself and was a great president. I think he wasn't a great president, but he did believe in two things, I guess. He was anti-communist, and for lowering taxes and creating a huge deficit. I guess that's three things.
Lucianne Goldberg, radio talk show host and publisher of Lucianne.com News Forum.
Charm beats smarm every time. Dubya is known among his vast acquaintances as a man of great humor and the snappy wisecrack, traits that are hard to showcase in a stultifyingly boring format like a national debate. This was particularly true last night, when his opponent, who last week showed up looking and sounding like Mrs. Doubtfire, had morphed into a condescending celebrity hairdresser who silently reproaches you for what you've done to your hair. Gore tried hard to keep his facts straight and his eyes in one place, but the damage had been done and the memory of lies and too much makeup lingered.
To choose a winner or loser in so artificial an event is ludicrous. What most people do is choose the man they want in their living rooms for four years, and in that case it was Dubya hands down.
Dubya gets extra points for not mentioning his mother, his wife, his dog, his car or anyone he knows who can't pay for their pills.
Andrew Sullivan, senior editor at the New Republic
If last week's debate was an assisted suicide, then this week's was a burial. I counted around 15 minutes when Gore clearly had the advantage -- the exchange over healthcare in Texas -- but the rest of the time, Bush creamed him. Last week, Bush demolished Gore on style; this week, he largely dismantled him on both style and substance. On foreign policy, Gore seemed vague and confused, interspersed with occasional moments of worrying idealism. Bush seemed focused, knowledgeable -- East Timor? Chernomyrdin? Kyoto? -- and sensible. Condoleezza Rice should get some sort of teaching award.
I can't think of a single domestic issue -- apart from healthcare -- where Gore had an edge. Having moved far to the left in August and September, Gore now tried to zig back to the center. It's too late to zig. The resulting incoherence only lends credibility to those who believe Gore will say anything. What I've learned this year about a man I once greatly admired is that, sadly, he doesn't seem to know who he is or what he really believes. He seems to be grasping at straws. Watching him tonight, he seemed tired, depressed, defeated. I think he thinks he's lost. It showed.
Bush, on the other hand, exuded confidence. He leaned back and smiled; Gore leaned forward and furrowed his brow. Take the debate over gay marriage, which I understandably listened to closely. I loathed Bush's answer -- don't homosexuals deserve the sacred as well? -- but I found it more coherent than [that of] Gore, who was trying to triangulate on an issue which allows no triangulation. (And can someone please tell Gore it's "civil union," not "civic union"?)
On hate crimes, the same diffidence showed. When Bush said he had a hate crimes law in Texas, Gore should have pointed out that it doesn't include gays, and that's what they disagree on. But Gore didn't, because he's too scared to make an issue about gay rights in a neutral setting. So he punted. And Bush won that round by seeming tougher on hate crimes than Gore! Neither side made the coherent point, of course, that such laws are pernicious examples of exactly the kind of special rights Bush allegedly decries. But Bush's chutzpah defeated Gore's defensiveness.
Gore has one advantage in debates -- he knows how to go for the jugular. But after last week, he was obviously told to be nice. So he was defanged. But without fangs, what else has he got? On charm, likability, credibility, he loses. On intellect, he wins. But tonight, Bush cleaned up. He seemed -- and, no, I'm not stoned -- more intelligent and eloquent than Gore. So Gore was left flailing. I suspect that last week was the turning point in this campaign and that tonight sealed it. I saw only one man on that stage who seemed to have the self-confidence, self-esteem and focus to be president. And it wasn't Gore.
Joe Eszterhas, author of "American Rhapsody"
Al Gore will lose this election unless:
1. He forgets everything Naomi Wolf has ever told him;
2. He ignores everything Bill Daley is telling him;
3. He hires James Carville immediately;
4. He goes deep into the woods for a week, finds himself and shows us -- finally -- the real, uncoached and human Al Gore.
Norman Lear, television producer
I was disgusted. I have three grown children who couldn't bear watching more than a half an hour of the debate. I also have three small children and I think who this next president is, if there was no other reason than the Supreme Court, could not be more important to their lives. There was no sense of the importance of any of this to the country my kids are going to grow up in.
I don't think it's because there's no difference between the two. Not at all. I think it's because there's no such thing as honest feelings and honest opinion absent spin in politics today. There is plenty of difference between the two. Just take the Supreme Court. Who appoints the next round of justices may be the most important issue in this race, and it didn't even come up. And not even one of them feels with enough conviction to bring it forward.
The advice the candidates are getting comes from polls on both sides. It comes from polls and what the momentary attitudes of people might be. Neither of them is speaking his mind, speaking his heart. They talk about heart, they talk about compassion, but they don't speak from the same heart they describe.
I've never seen such a passionless campaign. But I think we've been moving toward this for a long time. I do think the biggest issue in terms of all the social issues we all care about is related to who makes the next group of Supreme Court apppointments. That will affect the next 40-45 years of the social culture of our country. We're talking about a lot more than abortion. We're just in the beginning of the age of all the discussions regarding biotechnology, rights of privacy and intellectual property. Who owns the human genome? These are all things the next court will decide over the next few years. And I don't want these issues decided by people who think market forces ought to control everything.
I think Gore had Bush on healthcare in Texas, but I don't think he drove it home. Where gun control is concerned, I thought both of them pussyfooted in every direction trying to please everybody. Gore didn't force any of the issues, nor did Bush for that matter. If I were on the other side, I'd have the same complaints. They spent all their time agreeing with each other. A pox on both their houses.
Ward Connerly, author of "Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences" and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute
George W. Bush looked and sounded presidential in tonight's debate, exceeding expectations both on foreign and domestic issues. His opponent helped shore up his foreign policy credentials by often agreeing with him. He also showed a sense of humor and self-deprecation that appeals to the average person. Al Gore, on the other hand, didn't seem as relaxed or confident, though he managed to keep Bush on the defensive about the Texas record. Bush has to defend his state more effectively and take solace in the fact that the current president and vice president also came from Southern states that frequently come under attack for being below the national average in various ways.
On the issue of race, Bush showed a more optimistic view of America and the American people, noting that we are on the whole "good, tolerant people." Gore took a more pessimistic view of our ability to treat each other fairly here at the dawn of the 21st century, though he was more explicit in expressing this belief when he and the president hosted a 1997 meeting of people opposed to affirmative action preferences. In that meeting, whose transcript is part of the public record, he told me and the others that "evil lies coiled in the human soul." No matter how hard he tries, Gore is not likable and continues to divide the American people and mislead them with appeals to self-interest by class, income and race.
Joe Conason, author and Salon columnist
Until the last few minutes of this latest nondebate, Gore was overcorrecting his natural aggression to the point that he gave his opponent a free ride. He seemed reluctant to engage Bush on the issues that separate them during the first hour, as if he worried more about his press reviews than about delineating the differences that might move voters to his side. The rules of the seated conversational format favored Bush, who took full advantage of those rules to avoid the questions Gore put to him.
When he considers the outcome, Gore will regret waiting so long to start drawing contrasts the way he should have done all along -- by contrasting Bush's compassionate rhetoric with the Texas governor's record. As soon as the vice president focused on the specifics of the governor's mismanagement of environmental and health problems in Texas, Bush stumbled.
Gore made another error as well that reflected undue concern for the sensibilities of the national press. He failed to capitalize rhetorically on the successes of the Clinton-Gore administration, as if he preferred not to remind anyone about the existence of the president. Indeed, during their discussion of foreign policy, Bush at times sounded more eager to voice his support of Clinton policy than Gore himself.
Somehow Gore seems already to have forgotten the lesson of his successful convention speech: A progressive populist agenda, enunciated with vigor, is the way to consolidate support, win over swing voters and command public respect.
Christopher Buckley, editor of Forbes FYI magazine
Gov. Bush had to stay up past his normal 9:30 bedtime last night, but I think he'll sleep very well. I was quite struck by what I saw.
If a president does something out of character in office that the press approves of, they magnanimously call it "growth in office." It's rare that you genuinely get to see growth in a campaign, but that's what it looked like to me [Wednesday] night. I was genuinely blown away by Bush's confidence, and his mastery of material. The man who a few weeks ago couldn't get through a three-syllable word without turning it into a Möbius strip managed not only to pronounce the name of Viktor Chernomyrdin, former prime minister of Russia, but to call the man what he was, a thief. He gave the impression of a man it would be fun to spend time with. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to spend four years with smarmy lectures by Gore. Whatever else, he needs to work on his stare. It's downright weird.
If I were the Gore campaign, I would not sleep well tonight, and tomorrow I would wake up feeling afraid. Very afraid.
Stanley Crouch, critic and author of "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome"
This second one was much better than the first, primarily because both men were not only more civil, they seemed much more natural. Gore has long had the problem of seeming to be a male version of the mythical Daphne, the nymph of Greek imagination who turned into a laurel tree while running. In a one-on-one situation, away from the flashbulbs and the podium, Gore is a witty, charming and quite intelligent man.
This was the first time I saw Gore actually come off as himself in a public situation. He seemed relaxed, his sense of humor wasn't forced, there appeared to be an informing intelligence behind every word, he gave no impression of being afraid of military use when necessary and there wasn't the unnecessary condescension, which should never expose itself because it reads to an audience as either unattractive or unearned arrogance. He fully avoided the trap that one guy who hates Bush said about the first debate, "Why does Gore look as though he likes coming off as a combination of a school marm and a big drip of egotistical snot?"
I also thought that Bush came off as himself, as natural and far more informed about the nature of the world at large than he has thus far been given credit for, even if he did no more than cram for this debate (which is what politicians do all of the time, the best of them absorbing information at a high velocity and incorporating it into the DNA basic to the arguments that drive their policy positions and the legislation they propose or oppose). Bush was so swift on some of the foreign policy issues that he seemed to have beaten Gore to some of his positions on the military, use of military force, foreign aid and the problems of how to handle aid when faced with corrupt foreign governments. He, too, had a sense of humor, a down-home wit that served him well.
Bush also seemed to have a good grasp of something very profound about "racial profiling" -- which is that the very worst version of it is the failure to educate due to a lack of commitment based on color. His answer to Gore, about advocating a new hate crimes law, was very strong -- he responded by saying that the murder of James Byrd was a hate crime because hate is always behind murder.
Gore did not draw blood when he tried to stick on the issues of race and tax cuts, but he did get more than a trickle when stating that Texas was positioned as both the 49th and 50th state on some healthcare issues. But Gore put himself in potential trouble at the end when the issue of exaggeration came up. He talked as though he had only made some mistakes, not willfully told untruths. The vice president might well have done himself some good by facing up to what has been a tendency to play plastic man with the truth and promise not to do it again. Sometimes, confession is good for the polls and for the polling booths -- especially when connected to a believable vow.
Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University
Bush speaks and smiles as if he's the man who presides over the current prosperity. This is the voice of smooth complacency. The world is going the right way, starting with the state of Texas, never mind what you've heard from unreliable sources.
He's the man for cheerful maintenance. He's the president of progress, the good ole boy at the country club. He's right there with "What the heck" and "I've been known to mangle a 'syl-la-bul' or two." Sounds like a fun four years.
Gore sounds tense and urgent. He's not the voice of achievement; he's the voice of will. He has the narrowed eyes and controlled speech of a crusader. He speaks in the imperative voice. He's all earnestness. He wants us to think about the fate of the Earth and about other things that a lot of people would just as soon not think about. He's indignant about injustice, focused on "getting the big things right." Bush is just indignant about Gore. Fearful of sounding strident, Gore is reluctant to pin the Republican label on Bush, while Bush triangulates.
And Jim Lehrer? Tolerant, mannerly, accepting of distortion, unprobing when Bush denies again and again that he has anything in common with the Republican Congress that has shared in government for the last eight years.
Ben Stein, host of the Comedy Central program "Win Ben Stein's Money"
The first mistake that Gore made -- and this totally slipped by everybody -- is saying we no longer have a problem with trade imbalances, which is not true. They are astonishingly big. The only thing is that nobody worries about them anymore because of the economic expansion.
That wasn't the only mistake he made. Gore repeated that the Bush tax plan benefits go to the wealthiest 1 percent, or as he said Wednesday night, the richest of the rich, which is simply not true. Bush's proposal to end the estate tax would benefit the wealthy. As for the income tax, after the implementation of the Bush plan, the wealthy would actually be paying a greater portion of the income tax than in the Gore plan. What the vice president keeps doing is conflating Bush's proposals on the estate tax and the income tax.
I was shocked at Gore's saying that we need something like a Marshall Plan for Africa like we had in Europe after World War II. Anyone with even a modest knowledge of history knows that the situations are totally different. Europe had been devastated by war and was put in a temporary poverty, but the population had great economic skills. In Africa, you're talking about countries that are more or less permanently impoverished by their inhabitants' lack of economic and intellectual capital. What Gore said shows extreme ignorance of history.
I thought the question about hate crime was a very odd question. Gore said that there was no hate crime law in Texas, and Bush said there already is one. Bush made a mistake by not simply saying, "I don't know what you're talking about. We already have a hate crime law." He did hit the thing right out of the park on the James Byrd case, when he said, "Look, we are already executing the criminals. What could be harsher than that?"
As for the uninsured children, the reason so few children in Texas are insured is because the state has a huge percentage of illegal aliens and children of illegal aliens in the population. Those people don't have many things that middle-class people have. If you were to take out the illegal immigrants, Texas' insurance rate would be normal.
The dynamic of the evening was very interesting. At the beginning, when the topic was foreign policy, Bush was very confident, but when they got back to talking about Texas, he wasn't. I think it's unfortunate that he's not a very aggressive debater.
David Horowitz, Salon columnist
This was a big knockdown for Bush. He revealed a personality that was animated, warm, bighearted and civilly forceful. He showed he was no pushover. He showed -- contrary to what his detractors say -- that he had a brain and a command of details. These are the two key character tests for him in this campaign. He was also tolerant, inclusive, "reasonable" and centrist -- but innovative -- in his policy positions: "a conservative with compassion." He allowed Gore no real daylight on the caring issues, and thereby made the character issue the primary focus of this debate. Facing a man who was publicly straining to correct himself for fibbing, winning the character issue was a piece of cake for Bush.
Gore's strategy of self-control, on the other hand, worked relentlessly against him in this informal setting. He seemed icy and cold, back to the automaton image, programmed to the core. Moreover, Gore's new self-control strategy allowed Bush to shine -- which Gore could not afford to let him do. For example, when Gore approached Bush's jugular on Texas, he could not go in for the kill, which is fatal for the attacker in this situation. You cannot blast Texas as the bottom of the barrel and then allow the target to come back. When Bush said (essentially), There you go exaggerating again, you don't know what you're talking about, we have spent billions on this, we have improved as fast as any state, while you've let the same problem get worse on your watch, Gore had to come back and crush him. But he didn't. That undermined his credibility even further.
The debate left me more confident than ever that Bush not only will endure in this contest but will prevail.