Heated Agreement


Bush and Gore consider that a debate? It was more like, to borrow Bush's words, a "love fest," and not a particularly scintillating one at that.

You could practically hear the remote controls switching to the Mets/Cardinals game, or even the WB network, as last night's debate droned on and on and on. They spent the first 40 minutes on foreign policy. Gore didn't even get to the fact that Bush plans to cut taxes on the rich until an hour and ten minutes into the debate. And if you think it was painful to watch, try reading the transcript at 5:45 AM. Some wag on NPR complained that it was bad entertainment, saying that Jerry Springer knows how to keep an audience riveted. But that, of course, misses the point. Politics is serious business.

And, the punditocracy counseled, each candidate had specific business to accomplish last night. Gore had to prove himself likable, something that all signs indicate he's struggled with since his earliest days, when even his mother preferred to dine with DC society and leave young Albert eating alone in his hotel room. Bush had to prove himself presidential, also a recurring struggle. Each managed to accomplish his goal. But overnight flash polls, which show Bush won, notwithstanding, the real winner of last night's debate was Dick Cheney.

Just a week ago, before the vice presidential debate, Cheney was considered greedy and boring and a terrible campaigner. Last night, Bush couldn't wait to mention his name, dropping it in his first answer. Said Bush, "He's a man of solid judgment and he's going to be a person to stand by my side." Cheney may be a right-winger from the West, but prep school Al is proud to share his position on gay marriage, which, for the record, seems to be that he opposes it at the national level but would leave it states to decide. "I basically agree with Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman," said Gore (even he was hoping to bask in that Cheney afterglow). "I think the three of us have one view and the governor has another one."

This seems to be an understatement, uncharacteristic of Gore but consistent with his demeanor last night. I think all four of the candidates agree on most everything, which ought to scare you because you're going to be the one paying for it. Some points of agreement, like respecting hunters' rights to own guns, children's needs to have health care, and murderers' needs to be executed, no doubt stem from the reality that both candidates are battling for the same undecided voters in a few mostly Midwestern states and they have polling data that tell them what these people want to hear.

Other points of agreement, such as those reached in the 40 minutes they belabored foreign policy, stem from the simple fact that few people are willing to argue with success. Both, in general, support an interventionist foreign policy. Not that there weren't any disagreements. Bush rejects "nation building" in countries like Haiti, preferring instead to use the military for real wars. Gore promised to do whatever it takes to keep flotillas of refugees out of America. And when the next crisis erupts in Africa, Gore gave indication that he might put Tipper on another plane to set things straight, this time before they get out of hand. I'm not sure that Dubya would be willing to force Laura to sit through the raft of painful precautionary vaccinations it takes to visit that continent.

I almost felt sorry for Gore, who was working at a disadvantage last night that kept the debate from getting too heated, too detailed, and too interesting. If he got too detailed, he'd be considered pedantic; if he pointed out too many problems in Texas, he'd be seen as going too negative; and if he told the stories of real Americans, no one would believe they were true. As Gore sat trying to appear likable, he reminded me of the Winnie the Pooh character Tigger, the wonderful bouncy thing whose top is made out of rubber and whose bottom is made out of springs. The energetic Tigger, who got stuck in a tree, became the forlorn Tigger, after he was made to promise that he'd never bounce again before his friends would rescue him. The price he paid for safety and comfort was to deny his true, albeit annoying, self.

Gore is in a similar bind. Yet this morning he has cause for cheer. Early indications suggest that the press is set to nit pick Bush's assertions this week. It seems that only two of the three people convicted in the Byrd case are going to get the ultimate injection in Huntsville, the open-all-night site of Texas' death chamber. And Russia's Viktor Chernomyrdin didn't pocket IMF money, at least not directly. And, of course, Bush refused to deny Gore's statistical charges about Texas' failure as a welfare state. The narrative is about to turn in Gore's favor once again. Bush, it seems, can't help but mix things up.