AllPolitics - TIME This Week

Clinton v. Dole: Let The Debates Begin

[TIME Magazine]

(TIME, October 14) -- This has been a campaign season of modest politics, with modest excitements. What it got on Sunday night in the first of the presidential debates was a modest face-off‹low-key, congenial and small bore. However good that may have been for the quality of public discourse, it didnıt do much for Bob Doleıs dwindling chances on Election Day. He needed to come away from the debate in Hartford, Connecticut, a clear winner. He took prizes instead for good behavior and wit.

Clinton and Dole brought different needs to the debate. For Dole it was do or die. He had to hit Clinton hard but without seeming harsh, a conundrum for him all year. From the start it was apparent that Dole the debater would be far smoother than Dole the campaigner. In general he avoided the problems that can make him a quizzical speaker on the stump. He finished his sentences and connected his points. He showed the sense of humor that his aides have advised against as a weapon apt to go off in the wrong direction. When moderator Jim Lehrer, the PBS newscaster, asked Dole whether he agreed with Clinton that Americans were better off than they were four years ago, Dole snapped back with a nod at Clinton, "Well, heıs better off than he was four years ago." And then a follow-up: "Saddam Hussein is probably better off than he was four years ago."

But getting the laugh lines isnıt the same thing as defining yourself. For much of the 90 minutes that he and Bill Clinton debated on Sunday night, the two agreed as much as they disagreed. Drugs are bad. Medicare is good. Guns are bad. Education is good. Politics are bad and should be banished from the consideration of nearly every American problem. Bipartisan commissions are good and, if the debaters have their way, we will soon have them at work on every kind of problem, including Medicare, campaign-finance reform and gun control.

Dole talked a lot about rising drug use but failed to link it to presidential leadership. Every time Dole had an opportunity to contrast his character with President Clintonıs and link public doubts about Clintonıs character to public policy, he ducked, complaining that it would be "misconstrued." He did succeed in making subtle allusions to areas where Americans are uneasy about the President. "I want a bridge to the future," said Dole. "I also want a bridge to the truth."

Foreign policy questions presented Dole with a different kind of problem. He accused Clinton of an ad hoc foreign policy and effectively listed trouble spots such as Bosnia, Iraq and North Korea, where policy has been made on the fly. But in the aftermath of the cold war, which deprived both parties of clear-cut disputes in foreign policy, ad hoc­ism is a bipartisan problem.

The two finally found some running room on education. Dole has been arguing for months for vouchers and school choice, and charging that Clinton is too much a captive of teachersı unions to fight for real education reform like private school vouchers. Clinton tried to appropriate school choice as well, but since he would limit the choice to parents selecting which public school their children would attend, Clinton couldnıt get much traction. So he dove into a list of all the education programs Dole had voted against over the years: Head Start, national service, student loans. "That budget that you passed that I vetoed would have cut 50,000 kids out of Head Start," Clinton jabbed. "Thatıs a fact." But Dole came right back, hitting the President on the politics of symbolism. "Youıre for school uniforms and curfews, and youıre opposed to truancy. Now thatıs not reform, Mr. President."

Doleıs weakness was most evident when Lehrer asked the candidates to describe their political philosophies. It was a moment Doleıs advisers expected would be a big one. The President was ready first with a snappy creed: "To give people the tools to make the most of their own lives" and so on. It was Clinton at his creamiest and most persuasive. Dole summed up his own philosophy all too briefly: "Bob Dole keeps his word." Then he shortcut the moment by launching into another attack on Clinton for scaring elders on Medicare, and the chance for a big statement got lost in the campaign-season details.

This weekıs vice-presidential debate and the second and final presidential debate next week will be Dole-Kempıs last chances to put a dent in Clinton-Gore. But for all the built-up expectations that preceded Sundayıs encounter, debates havenıt really been watershed moments in past campaigns. Certainly soft collisions like this one wonıt be. There was one more place where both Clinton and Dole agreed during the debate: they both said they trust the people.

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