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The Debates: Bush Punts on Fourth Down

Mike Hall

In this election year, the American people have a critical choice to make in determining the future of this country. Who should voters choose: the Democrats’ Al Gore and Joe Lieberman; the Republicans’ George W. Bush and Dick Cheney; or Monday Night Football’s Al Michaels and Dennis Miller?

The Bush campaign, at least, hopes that Americans will be able to make that choice when deciding whether or not to watch this year’s presidential debates. By proposing debates during off-peak viewing hours or other major events, Dubya’s handlers hope to hide his incompetence from the national eye -- and, in the process, prevent America from seeing Gore at his best, excelling in a substantive discussion of policy.

Until recently, the Gore campaign’s attempts to get Bush to debate at all had been futile. Early this week, Bush remained reticent to commit to any prime-time debates at all, preferring to debate on a seldom-watched Sunday morning political show.

After a New York Times article Tuesday raised national criticism of Bush’s cowardice, his handlers finally agreed yesterday to prime-time debates. The campaign said, however, that their man was still unwilling to accept the three debates planned by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the politically-neutral sponsors of the debates since 1988.

Bush’s reluctance to debate is nothing new. The problem goes back to 1994, when Bush faced off against the acerbic Ann Richards for the Texas gubernatorial election. In most elections, the challenger ends up begging for a chance to debate the incumbent. In 1994, however, the incumbent Richards ended up begging Bush, the challenger, to accept even one debate invitation. Fearing that Richards would manhandle their candidate with her sharp tongue, Bush’s handlers rejected high-profile invitations from San Antonio reporters and CNN’s “Larry King Live,” and accepted only one invitation for a debate on a Friday night, when most Texans are attending high school football games.

Bush repeated the scheme in 1998, agreeing to only one Friday night debate with Democratic challenger Garry Mauro.

Given Bush’s performance in his limited debate experience, however, it’s no wonder that his handlers would want to keep their man off the stage. Bush the debater got off to an inauspicious start in 1994, when he was called on several factual errors by Texas reporters. One of the most significant errors was during a question on his proposal to eliminate Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits after two years. When asked, for example, about his plan to cut Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits, Bush said that “people without children” should also stop receiving AFDC benefits after two years, forgetting that “people without children” would not qualify for benefits anyway under a welfare plan for families with children.

Bush’s lone accomplishment in debates has been handing out ad hominem attacks with vigor, as shown by the vicious nature of this year’s Republican primary. While U.S. Sen. John McCain offered substantive issues for debate during the primaries, Bush restricted his campaign activities to generalities and personal assaults. One glittering example came during the Jan. 26 Republican primary debate in Manchester, New Hampshire. Following McCain’s insightful criticism of Bush’s expansive tax-cut plan, the Great Right Hope delivered the McCarthyesque response of, “Al Gore would have written your plan, Mr. Senator.” Neener, neener.

Compare to Gore, who is widely expected to win the debates handily. Some pundits believe Gore could win the White House on the basis of the debates alone. Revered widely as a “policy wonk,” Gore presents a formidable debating challenge to any politician, let alone a lightweight like Bush. The best example of Gore’s shining debate prowess came in November 1993, when prospects for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement appeared to be waning. With two weeks to go before the vote in the House, President Clinton was short of passage by 30 votes, with NAFTA opponents like H. Ross Perot gloating that defeat was all but assured.

Facing the humiliation of losing on a cornerstone of his 1992 campaign, Clinton called for the Hail Mary, throwing Gore into a debate on NAFTA with the billionaire from Texas. Most political observers criticized the move, with Perot calling it an act of desperation by Clinton to save his foundering presidency.

Coming into the debate on “Larry King Live,” Gore not only faced the pressure of saving NAFTA, but also of saving the reputation of the entire Clinton administration. Little was expected of Gore, whose only prior national debate experience was in the playground taunting fest with then-Vice President Dan Quayle and James “Who am I? Why am I here?” Stockdale in 1992.

As the debate progressed, however, Gore demonstrated the skill that has the Republicans shaking in their boots. With calm and concise delivery, Gore with a logical presentation of the Clinton administration’s support for increasing economic ties with America’s next-door neighbors. He easily dispatched the blustery Perot, whose mindless drivel and incessant interruptions then eerily parallel Bush’s debate style today.

After NAFTA passed by a surprising 40-vote margin, Gore received the lion’s share of the credit for changing the nation’s perspective on the trade pact. Following the debate, calls favoring the pact were laced in overwhelming numbers to undecided congressmen. A Washington insider, echoing many in the Beltway, said that Gore “undressed” Perot, adding that his performance was responsible for shifting media momentum from NAFTA opponents to the White House.

Gore added to his reputation in 1996 with a solid performance against Jack Kemp in the vice presidential debate. Gore’s honest style and in-depth discussion of the issues won over the American public, who gave him the victory by 20-point margins in polls by CBS and ABC. David M. Shribman, a columnist for The Boston Globe, noted that Gore’s “dogged, disciplined style, which so often seems flat before large audiences, [was] well-suited to the small screen of television.”

It’s no wonder Bush’s handlers want to keep Gore from getting a prime-time audience. They’re afraid that the veep with crush their stumbling, bumbling main man in prime-time like a pass rusher sacking a quarterback on Monday night. Unfortunately for Dubya, cowardice doesn’t play well on the football gridiron or the political gridiron.